Nuclear medicine physician

Nuclear medicine physician

Nuclear Medicine Physicians are medical specialists that use tracers, usually radiopharmaceuticals, for diagnosis and therapy. Nuclear medicine procedures are the major clinical applications of molecular imaging and molecular therapy.[1][2][3] In the United States, nuclear medicine physicians are certified by the American Board of Nuclear Medicine.



In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity.[4] It was only a little over a quarter of a century (1925) until the first radioactive tracer study in animals was performed by George de Hevesy, and the next year (1926) the first diagnostic tracer study in humans was performed by Herman Blumgart and Otto Yens.[5]

Some of the earliest applications of radioisotopes were therapy of hematologic malignancies and therapy of both benign and malignant thyroid disease. In the 1950s radioimmunoassay was developed by Solomon Berson and Rosalyn Yalow. Dr. Yalow was co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (Dr. Berson had already died so was not eligible). Radioimmunoassay was used extensively in clinical medicine but more recently has been largely replaced by non-radioactive methods.

In 1950, human imaging of both gamma and positron emitting radioisotopes was performed. Benedict Cassen's work with a directional probe lead to the development of the first imaging with a rectilinear scanner.[6] Gordon Brownell developed the first positron scanner.[7] In the same decade (1954) the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM) was organized,[8] and (1958) Hal Anger developed the gamma scintillation camera,[9] which could image a whole region at the same time.

Initial introduction of radioisotopes into medicine required individuals to acquire of a considerable background information which was foreign to their medical training. Often a particular application drove the introduction of radioisotopes into a health care facility. As other applications developed the physician or group that had developed knowledge of and experience with radioisotopes usually provided the new service. Consequently, the radioisotope service found homes in several established specialties – commonly in radiology due to an interest in imaging, in pathology (clinical pathology) due to an interest in radioimmunoassay, and in endocrinology due to the early application of 131I to thyroid disease.[10]

Nuclear medicine became widespread and there was a need to develop a new specialty. In the United States, the American Board of Nuclear Medicine was formed in 1972.[11] At that time, the specialty include all of the uses of radioisotopes in medicine – radioimmunoassay, diagnostic imaging, and therapy. As use of and experience with radioisotopes became more widespread in medicine, radioimmunoassay generally transferred from nuclear medicine to clinical pathology. Today, nuclear medicine is based on the use of the tracer principle applied to diagnostic imaging and therapy.




  • Planar imaging
Most radionuclides give off gamma-rays when they decay. A 2-dimensional image of the radionuclide distribution can be made with a gamma camera, often called an Anger scintillation camera after its inventor, Hal Anger.
  • Single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)
Multiple planar images taken from different angles around a patient can be reconstructed to form a stack of cross-sectional, tomographic images.
Some isotopes emit positrons (the anti-matter equivalent of an electron) when they decay. The positrons travel a short distance in tissue and then annihilate with an electron giving off two nearly back-to-back gamma rays. Positron emission tomography takes advantage of these back-to-back gamma rays to localize the distribution of the radioisotopes.
  • Combined molecular and anatomic imaging: SPECT/CT, PET/CT, and PET/MRI
The advantage of nuclear medicine is that it provides molecular and physiologic information, but it is relatively poor at providing anatomic information and the resolution is relatively poor. In recent years, instruments have been developed which allow both radioisotope and anatomic imaging. Most widespread are PET/CT scanners combining PET and computed tomography. Increasingly common are SPECT/CT scanners. Instruments combining PET with magnetic resonance, PET/MRI, are starting to be used.
  • Non-imaging instrumentation
Non-imaging instruments are used for measuring radioisotope doses, for counting samples, and for radiation safety.


In the United States, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits nuclear medicine residency programs, and the American Board of Nuclear Medicine (ABNM) certifies nuclear medicine physicians. After completing medical school, a post-graduate clinical year is followed by three years of nuclear medicine residency. A common alternate path for physicians who have completed a radiology residency is a one year residency in nuclear medicine. A less common path for physicians who have completed another residency is a two year residency in nuclear medicine.[13]

Other professionals

Nuclear medicine procedures are performed by nuclear medicine technologists, who require extensive training both in underlying principles (physics, instrumentation) but also in the clinical applications. Nursing support, especially in the hospital setting, is valuable, but may be shared with other services. Nuclear medicine is a technology embedded specialty depending upon a large number of non-physician professional, including medical physicists, health physicists, radiobiologists, radiochemists, and radiopharmacists.

Nuclear medicine physicians have the most extensive training, including all aspects of diagnosis and radionuclide therapy. However, other physicians may interpret nuclear medicine studies and perform radionuclide therapy. Radiologists often limit their practice to diagnostic imaging in nuclear medicine. Some cardiologists, especially non-invasive cardiologists, interpret diagnostic cardiology studies including nuclear medicine studies. Radiation oncologists perform all forms of radiation therapy including radionuclide therapy. Some endocrinologists treat hyperthyroidism and thyroid cancer with 131I. The mix of physicians rendering nuclear medicine services varies both between different countries and within a single country.


  1. ^ Wagner Henry N. (2006), A Personal History of Nuclear Medicine. Springer. ISBN 978-1852339722
  2. ^ National Atomic Museum
  3. ^ Potchen EJ: Reflections on the early years of nuclear medicine. Radiology 2000; 214:623-624. PMID 10715020
  4. ^ Blaufox MD: Becquerel and the discovery of radioactivity: Early concepts. Semin Nucl Med 1996; 26:145-154. PMID: 8829275
  5. ^ Patton DD: The birth of nuclear medicine instrumentation: Blumgart and Yens, 1925. J Nucl Med 2003; 44:1362. PMID 12902429
  6. ^ Blahd WH: Ben Cassen and the development of the rectilinear scanner. Semin Nucl Med 1996; 26:165-170. PMID 8829277.
  7. ^ A History of positron imaging
  8. ^ Harris CC: The formation and evolution of the society of nuclear medicine. Semin Nucl Med 1996;26:180-190. PMID 8829279
  9. ^ Gottschalk A: The early years with Hal Anger. Semin Nucl Med 1996; 26:171-179. PMID 8829278
  10. ^ Becker DV, Sawin CT: Radioiodine and thyroid disease: The beginning. Semin Nucl Med 1996; 26:155-164. PMID 8829276
  11. ^ Ross JF: A history of the American Board of Nuclear Medicine. Semin Nucl Med. 1996 Jul;26(3):191-193. PMID 8829280.
  12. ^ PET center of excellence
  13. ^ ABNM brochure

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