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Even if you've never been on the receiving end of an exam, there’s a good chance you’ve at least passed by a hospital’s medical imaging wing. To some of us, the daunting looking machines are mystifying and maybe even a little scary, but to others they’re engaging evidence of our medical progress. Nuclear medicine deals with the identification and treatment of interior body ills by introducing radioactive substances into the body and then capturing images of the body’s nuanced reactions with sophisticated instruments. If you’ve got a steady hand, an inquiring mind and a healthy dose of compassion, maybe a career as a nuclear medicine technologist is for you.

As you might expect, it’s involved business being on the administering end of radioactive drugs. “Nuclear medicine is a rapidly evolving discipline with ongoing research and developments in radiopharmaceuticals, hybrid imaging technology and molecular imaging applications,” says Lorie Fisher, program head of the Nuclear Medicine Technology department at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. It’s a specialized discipline, but there’s ample opportunity to move, literally and figuratively. While an accredited graduate might seek work in Canada, the States, or even worldwide, says Fisher, “each country has its own certification and licensing requirements. People appreciate the standards of practice here in Canada, and many gravitate back here.” Jordan Holmes, an assistant professor of Nuclear Medicine at The Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences in Toronto, adds, “nuclear medicine departments exist in hospitals in most city centres throughout the world. In rural settings, a department in a regional hospital will typically service a wide geographical area. In Canada and the United States, private clinics are also an option.”

The starting salary for a new grad can fluctuate depending on region and institution, and ranges between $25-30 an hour. “Advancement opportunities vary, depending on site-specific circumstances, an individual’s strengths, advanced education, initiative and willingness to relocate,” says Fisher. Just as there’s a variety of avenues for practice, there’s also a lot of doors that a background in Nuclear Medicine could open, in regards to career advancement. “Many people choose to work as a technologist for their whole career, but others choose to branch out,” offers Holmes. “Some go to work for pharmaceutical companies or imaging equipment manufacturers like GE, Phillips or Siemens. Still others move on to work in education, or become involved with our federal regulatory board, The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.”

If you’re thinking of entering the field, there are a couple things to keep in mind, beyond the obvious need for accreditation and certification. “People who get into this field are responsible, dependable and effective communicators,” says Fisher. Alongside all of the intense mental requirements of the job, including the safe handling and administering of radiopharmaceuticals and efficient imaging processing and study, she notes that there’s also a strong physical component to the job. “Technologists are physically active and must be able to move heavy objects and perform patient transfers safely and spend long hours on their feet.”

In Holmes’ estimation, “it’s important to have the ability to multi-task, and to have an analytical perspective,” but there’s also a need for the human touch. “A big part of our job is gaining the trust and cooperation of patients, physicians and co-workers,” he muses. “To do that, one needs to be comfortable communicating with people and have the capacity for empathy.” The trick is learning to leave the baggage at work. “When I was practicing in a hospital,” he continues, “I found that the hardest part of the job was keeping an emotional distance from the patients.”

The day-to-day work of a Nuclear Medicine Technologist is variable. “We’re looking at the function of a wide array of physical processes, ranging from the supply of blood to the heart to how well the thyroid is processing iodine,” says Holmes. “That makes it unlikely that each day will be the exact same routine.” Fisher agrees, adding that, “technologists typically rotate responsibility for different areas of practice. They may be managing the operations of a radiopharmacy, including the preparing and administering radiopharmaceuticals to patients, or they may be responsible for performing patient imaging studies and operating gamma camera digital imaging systems.”

To Holmes, the job’s satisfaction lies in its nuances. “Working as a nuclear medicine technologist is a combination of science and artistry,” he suggests. “Getting a good set of images requires great attention to detail, and there’s nothing like the pride one feels when both the patient and the reporting physician are happy with the exam.”

Photo: Bunyos/Thinkstock