Look to the Future The Prospects for Nuclear Medicine? It’s Intriguing Subject Matter

Richard Serino says the field of nuclear medicine, or the use of so-called radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose and treat illness, is at a crossroads of sorts, an intriguing point in its nearly 60-year history and one where the future is somewhat hard to predict, although optimism prevails.

Elaborating, Serino, professor and chair of the Nuclear Medicine Technology department at Springfield Technical Community College, said technology in this and related fields within medicine is advancing at a rapid rate, giving rise to what is known as ‘hybrid imaging technology.’ This is a melding of CT (computed tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) technology that has led to what Serino calls “almost Star Trek-like” advances in patient evaluation.

“We’re moving in that direction — to where the patient lies on the bed and the physician moves that little decoder thing over them and, in one shot, do many, many tests,” he explained. “Some hospitals now have a nuclear-medicine scanner and a CT scanner imbedded in one machine, and they can overlay structural anatomy from the CT with functional anatomy from the nuclear-medicine scanner.”

The advent of such hybrid technology will likely have some far-reaching implications for those who may wish to pursue this career path and those who teach the subject matter, said Serino, listing everything from the likelihood of substantial job growth within the field to perhaps some changes in the amount of education that individuals must possess to enter this realm.

For now, though, Serino is dealing mostly with the present tense, which doesn’t equate to the best of times for those looking to enter this well-paying profession (starting salaries exceed $50,000). Indeed, many of those who graduated in the summer of 2009 are still looking for full-time employment as nuclear medicine technicians, he explained, adding that this is a real departure from most previous years, when nearly all graduates had jobs waiting for them.

The sagging economy, it seems, has impacted even the still-generally healthy medical sector, said Serino, adding that most hospitals are being conservative with their hiring in many areas — including nuclear medicine. What happens with the next class, due to graduate in six months, will provide a clearer picture of what will happen with this specialty short-term.

For the long term, though, Serino, who has been working in nuclear medicine since the early ’70s, is projecting much better times.

Positive Image

Before getting into detail about this profession and its prospects, Serino first gave some quick history lessons and a general overview of what nuclear medicine is — and isn’t.

“There are many misperceptions about it,” he said, adding that many people believe X-ray technology, MRIs, and CT scans constitute nuclear medicine. They don’t.

“Nuclear medicine is part of a medical-imaging specialty, along with ultrasound, CT scans, MRIs, and radiography,” Serino explained. “One of the differences is that we inject or orally administer radiopharmaceuticals (radioactive chemicals) that will target and go to areas of the body for two basic purposes.

“First, they emit energy so we can take a picture of things so we can look at the anatomy and function of organ systems,” he continued, “or, therapeutically, treat a cancer or slow the function of an organ system by a controlled radiation destruction of those areas.”

Nuclear medicine is used for a number of evaluations, such as stress tests conducted on treadmills, bone scans, and tests to determine the origin of abdominal pain, said Serino, noting that just about any part of the body can be examined in this way. And while CT Scans and MRIs essentially tell the technician how something looks, muclear medicine assesses how it functions.

Nuclear medicine technicians prepare and administer the so-called radiotracer, perform the radionucline study, and then produce a final qualitative or quantitative product, so that a diagnosis and/or treatment can be made by a physician who specializes in the field.

The field of nuclear medicine, which traces its origins to the years just after World War II and started maturing in the late ’60s and early ’70s, has evolved over the decades, said Serino. Changes have come in technology, the use of computers, ethics, and even perception and amenities.

“Years ago, they would stick nuclear medicine in the basement of most hospitals because it had a radiation sticker on it and no one wanted to look at that; so we had the lousiest chairs and tables and the worst lighting,” he said. “Now, it’s been mainstreamed into the front of a lot of hospitals, and there are hotel-like settings for patients to come to.”

STCC’s associate’s degree program in Nuclear Medicine Technology dates back to the mid ’70s, said Serino, and it, too, has evolved and matured, to the point where he would rank it in the top 10{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of the 100 programs nationwide. It is one of seven in Massachusetts and the only one west of Worcester.

Serino says the 24-month program’s strength lies its comprehensive blend of classroom study and clinical work. Concerning the former, courses range from ‘Computer Basics: Concepts and Applications’ to ‘Nuclear Imaging of Organs’; from ‘General Psychology’ to ‘Radiologic Physics.’ As for the clinical work, conducted through affiliations with Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Hospital, Hartford Hospital, and Manchester Hospital, it totals at least 1,900 hours, more than in most other programs, he explained.

With the last few classes amounting to a huge exception to the rule, STCC graduates have fared well over the past few decades, said Serino, adding that they have landed jobs in hospitals across Western Mass., Northern Conn., and beyond.

Most nuclear medicine departments are small, however — Baystate Health’s and Hartford Hospital’s are the exceptions — so job opportunities have always been limited by demand, he continued, adding quickly that, when the current economic downturn subsides, he expects demand for nuclear medicine technicians to pick up.

Work in Progress

Just how much it picks up will be determined by a number of factors, he said, including the pace at which that ‘Star Trek technology,” already in use in some markets, takes hold.

But considering the pace of technological advances and the ongoing graying of America, the future looks bright for a career path that has experienced a few bumps in the road.

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