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Nuclear medicine technologists administer radiopharmaceuticals to patients and then monitor the characteristics and functions of tissues or organs in which the drugs localize. Abnormal areas show higher-than-expected or lower-than-expected concentrations of radioactivity. Nuclear medicine differs from other diagnostic imaging technologies because it determines the presence of disease on the basis of metabolic changes, rather than changes in organ structure.
Nuclear medicine technologists operate cameras that detect and map the radioactive drug in a patient’s body to create diagnostic images. After explaining test procedures to patients, technologists prepare a dosage of the radiopharmaceutical and administer it by mouth, injection, inhalation, or other means. They position patients and start a gamma scintillation camera, or “scanner,” which creates images of the distribution of a radiopharmaceutical as it localizes in and emits signals from the patient’s body. The images are produced on a computer screen or on film for a physician to interpret.
When preparing radiopharmaceuticals, technologists adhere to safety standards that keep the chance of radiation exposure as low as possible to workers and patients. Technologists keep patient records and document the amount and type of radionuclides that they receive, use, and discard.
There are two areas of specialty for nuclear medicine technologists—nuclear cardiology and positron emission tomography (PET). Nuclear cardiology typically involves myocardial perfusion imaging, which, like most nuclear medicine, uses radiopharmaceuticals and cameras to image the body. Myocardial perfusion imaging, however, requires that patients perform exercise so the technologist can image the heart and blood flow. Technologists specializing in PET operate a special medical imaging device that produces a 3-D image of the body.
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Radiation therapy is used to treat cancer in the human body. As part of a medical radiation oncology team, radiation therapists use machines called linear accelerators to administer radiation treatment to patients. Linear accelerators are most commonly used in a procedure called external beam therapy, which projects high-energy X rays at targeted cancer cells. As the X rays collide with human tissue, they produce highly energized ions that can shrink and eliminate cancerous tumors. Radiation therapy is sometimes used as the sole treatment for cancer, but it is usually used in conjunction with chemotherapy or surgery.
Before treatment can begin, the oncology team has to develop a treatment plan. To create this plan, the radiation therapist must first use an X-ray imaging machine or computer tomography (CT) scan to pinpoint the location of the tumor. Then, a radiation oncologist (a physician who specializes in therapeutic radiology) and a radiation physicist (a worker who calibrates the linear accelerator) determine the best way to administer treatment. The therapist completes the plan by positioning the patient and adjusting the linear accelerator to the specifications developed by the team, recording the details so that these conditions can be replicated during treatment. The therapist later explains the treatment plan to the patient and answers any questions that the patient may have.
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, Radiation Therapists, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos299.htm (visited May 05, 2011).
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