Nuclear Pharmacist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotA patient arrives at a hospital with a hard-to-diagnose illness. X-rays shed no light on what the cause might be.

In days gone by, that would have been the end of the story. But in the age of nuclear medicine, things are just warming up.

The patient takes a radiopharmaceutical -- a drug containing small amounts of radioactive material known as "tracers." They reveal detailed information about the trouble spot to a special camera. Now, the illness can be named, studied and ultimately beaten.

dotNuclear pharmacists, also known as radiopharmacists, specialize in the procurement, compounding, dispensing and use of radiopharmaceuticals. Their work is a recognized specialty within pharmacy.

"It is unique in that the drugs are radioactive or combined with radioactive isotopes," explains John Yuen. He is a nuclear pharmacist in Los Angeles.

dotCommon procedures involving radiopharmaceuticals include bone scans, heart scans, breast scans, liver and gallbladder scans, ovarian and colorectal cancer imaging, prostate cancer imaging, brain imaging and renal (kidney) imaging.

The drugs can also be used to treat thyroid conditions and some forms of arthritis.

dotNuclear pharmacists work alongside other specialists in nuclear medicine -- a branch of health care that harnesses radioactivity to diagnose and treat the ill. Its very concept comes as a surprise to most people, who tend to associate radiation with sickness, rather than health.

"I don't glow in the dark!" says nuclear pharmacist Tim Younkin. He works for a commercial radiopharmacy in Virginia. "Everybody seems to ask me that."

dotContrary to popular belief, radiation in small doses has few harmful effects. Patients given a prescribed radiopharmaceutical -- which is usually injected, but can sometimes be inhaled or swallowed -- receive roughly the same exposure to radiation as they would during a standard X-ray examination.

dot"The majority of nuclear pharmacists are employed by large industry firms, providing bulk and unit dosed radiopharmaceuticals," says Yuen. Others work for universities, government organizations and medical institutions.

"Many of the premier and university-based hospitals offer on-site nuclear pharmacy services," he notes.

dotWherever they work, nuclear pharmacists must know how to handle radioactive materials -- and the responsibility that goes along with it.

"Personnel authorized to handle radioactive materials need special training and certification. [They must] wear protective garments and shielding from the radiation, and must follow strict guidelines on the receipt, handling, disposition, disposal and transfer of radioactive materials," Yuen says.

dotTo avoid exposure to radiation, nuclear pharmacists do most of their hands-on work in contained workstations with lead glass screens and gloved ports.

"Monitoring badges are worn on the body and the hand of nuclear pharmacists to measure personal exposure on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual and lifetime basis," Yuen says.

Younkin spends most of his workdays drawing up and packaging doses to fill orders. He believes he stands a greater chance of injury in a car accident than on the job. "Our radiation levels are monitored and are very low compared to what we are allowed to receive by law," he says.

dotBesides brains, nuclear pharmacists need brawn. When sending and receiving shipments, they sometimes have to move packages weighing as much as 50 pounds.

dotSome nuclear pharmacists work only slightly longer than the norm. Ingrid Koslowsky, who works for a public hospital, estimates that she works 40 to 50 hours per week.

In the private sector, hours can be more unpredictable. "My first job opened at midnight till 4:30 p.m.," says Younkin. "My present job opens at 2 a.m. till 5 p.m. If the pharmacy lab does a lot of doses, it will probably open up very early and possibly close later."

The good news is that most nuclear pharmacists work on a rotating schedule. "That way, a pharmacist won't always have to come in so early every week," explains Younkin.

At a Glance

Work with radioactive drugs

  • You can work for universities, government organizations or medical institutions
  • Most of the hands-on work is done in contained workstations with lead glass screens and gloved ports
  • Start with a degree in pharmacy


Watch a one-minute video showing what it's like to work in this career or related careers