Healthcare Scientist in Nuclear Medicine

HSC week blogEver wondered what a career in Nuclear Medicine would look like? Clinical Scientist, Sarah Bell tells us a bit about her role.

I have been working in the Derriford Hospital Nuclear Medicine department for about a year and a half now. When I first started here I was still in the final year of the three year Scientist Training Programme (STP) in medical physics. I qualified as a Clinical Scientist about six months ago – although I’m finding that I still have a lot to learn!

I am part of a team of three qualified Clinical Scientists and generally at least one trainee in Nuclear Medicine. As Clinical Scientists we are actually a part of the Clinical and Radiation Physics group, who are a department within Healthcare Science and Technology, a service line of Clinical Support Services. As Nuclear Medicine specialists our jobs are very varied, and in my opinion very interesting!

Nuclear medicine is a branch of medical imaging that uses drugs labelled with a small amount of radioactive material to image physiological function in the body using special cameras. These images are used to diagnose or determine the severity of a variety of diseases. Radioactive drugs (called radiopharmaceuticals) can also be therapeutic rather than diagnostic and can be used to treat some diseases.

Part of our responsibilities includes the design and implementation of optimal acquisition protocols for specific studies. This means working out the best parameters to set on the camera to obtain the best images possible to send to the consultants to enable the right diagnosis. We are also involved in the computer processing of some of the more complex imaging studies to provide the right information for the consultants.

As I’m sure you can imagine – the work done in Nuclear Medicine could result in serious accidents if the right risk assessments and protocols aren’t in place to ensure the safety of both patients and staff. It is the responsibility of the Radiation Protection Advisor to ensure that there are safe working procedures and contingency plans in place to keep the risk to a minimum. I help the other two physicists, who are both certified Radiation Protection Advisors, by assisting with the risk assessments for new procedures or any modifications to existing ones. For example we are changing the radioactive isotope for one of our studies because the old one is not being manufactured any more. Does this mean that the staff preparing the patient injections will be exposed to a higher level of radiation? Will we need to change our existing procedure? What will be the clinical impact? These are all questions I try to answer before we give the go ahead.

Our responsibilities also include equipment management, which can include the specification and acceptance testing of new equipment, as well as regular quality control testing of existing equipment. We’re also lucky (in my opinion) that we have a radiopharmacy within in our department, which isn’t the case for all Nuclear Medicine departments. The radiopharmacy is where all of the radiopharmaceuticals are made each morning. I’ve recently been learning about quality control of the radiopharmaceuticals we manufacture and how we determine if they are safe to be injected into patients. I’m looking forward to getting more involved in the radiopharmacy side of the work we do here in Nuclear Medicine.

A few of the other responsibilities we have here include, but are not limited to, therapeutic treatments of patients with over-active thyroid, thyroid cancer remnant ablation, and prostate cancer metastases. Also, the management and disposal of all of the radioactive waste we accumulated in the department is managed by physicists. Finally we get involved in research and development and try to stay ahead of the game by attending conferences and courses to find out what everyone else is doing too.

I really enjoy working in Nuclear Medicine. It’s very much a team game where I get to work alongside technologists, consultants, nurses and clerical staff. It’s not just limited to our department either! From my experience Nuclear Medicine departments from other Trusts are more than happy to compare protocols and procedures and discuss new developments and guidelines and how these may best be brought into practice. There’s a great community feel to this field and I would definitely recommend a career in Nuclear Medicine to anyone who may be interested!

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