What is a Nuclear Pharmacy Technician?

There are many fields that someone interested in becoming a pharmacy technician can choose to specialize in after they master the basics of the profession and complete their initial education and certification requirements. One newer, but very exciting career path is that of nuclear pharmacy technician (NPT).

What is Nuclear Pharmacy?

As the name suggests, a nuclear pharmacy mixes, prepares and fills prescriptions for a class of drugs that are known as radiopharmaceuticals.

There are an increasing number of these drugs, and they are used to diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions. The one thing they all do have in common is that they have radioactive isotopes, which means they must be handled, mixed, dispensed and used with extreme care.

These drugs are used in all kinds of imaging and diagnostic studies that identify and diagnose a wide variety of health conditions.

The nature of and uses for means the majority of them are used in clinical settings. Most nuclear pharmacies are therefore located within hospitals and imaging and diagnostic centers themselves, although a growing number of independent, offsite nuclear pharmacies are opening across the country as the demand for their services increases.

In addition, a number of colleges and universities engaged in researching and creating new radiopharmaceuticals operate independent nuclear pharmacies as well.

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What Do Nuclear Pharmacy Technicians Do?

The basic primary role of the nuclear pharmacy technician is the same as any other; to serve as an assistant under the direct supervision of a Nuclear Pharmacist. Their day-to-day duties are often quite different though.

Unlike retail pharmacy technicians an NPT does not deal very often with the general public, but they do have to work closely with the medical professionals who are ordering the drugs they work with. 

This means that they need an excellent understanding of medical terminology as well as standard practices of hygiene and drug handling as it relates to radiopharmaceuticals.

A nuclear pharmacy technician will be tasked with mixing radiopharmaceuticals according to their supervising pharmacists precise instructions. They need to be very precise and very familiar with the drugs they are handling which calls for a specialist knowledge that goes beyond the standard expected of a general certified pharmacy technician.

NPTs do not 'escape' administrative work though. They are still often responsible for verifying insurance coverages, obtaining any preauthorizations needed for coverage and, in some cases, checking for possible interactions with medicines that a patient is already prescribed.

Is Working As a Nuclear Pharmacy Tech Dangerous?

Any time the world 'nuclear' is used people do tend to associate it with danger, and working in a nuclear pharmacy is something people may wonder about the risk.

As we mentioned earlier, the one thing that radiopharmaceuticals all have in common is that they do contain active radioactive isotopes. This does mean that if they are handled incorrectly they could be dangerous.

However, the precautions taken in the average nuclear pharmacy setting minimizes this risk and experts say that it is no more dangerous than working with x-rays and other imaging machines. This having been said, minimizing risk and ensuring safe handling procedures are followed at all times is an important part of a nuclear pharmacy technician’s training and education.

What Qualities Does a Good Nuclear Medicine Pharmacy Technician Need?

Before they even begin any education to become a nuclear pharmacy technician it's important that paraprofessionals in this field are aware of the special qualities needed that go beyond classroom learning.

More importantly than perhaps anything else is precision.

Radiopharmaceuticals must be mixed and dispensed in very exact doses, as any mistakes can lead to false diagnosis, misleading test results and even to patient harm. They must also have a good head for figures, be very good at documenting what they do and be able to get along with, and serve, a wide variety of medical professionals, researchers, and, in some cases, patients.

Nuclear Pharmacy Technician Salaries Data

Given that it is a position that calls for more education (more on that in a moment) and can be more demanding, it is to be expected that a nuclear pharmacy technician will usually earn more than a certified Rx tech working in a retail setting.

In 2018 the average annual salary for a nuclear pharmacy technician was $56,297. In the 25th percentile, which usually applies to entry level positions, that figure dropped to $48,912 but rose as high as $70,034 in the 90th percentile, which covers the top 10% of earners.

These salary figures are just averages though, with some facilities paying higher the more experienced a nuclear pharmacy technician is, their level of education, and what their job requirements are.

How To Become Nuclear Pharmacy Technician?

Before they can consider becoming a nuclear pharmacy technician those interested in entering the field are advised to complete their general pharmacy technology certification - by passing the PTCE as set by the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB). This will provide a good foundation on which to begin furthering their education to become a nuclear pharmacy technician and also enable them, if they desire, to begin working in the field and gain general 'real world' experience as they do.

Because it is a new and growing field, most states have yet to put formal requirements for a person to work as an NPT specifically. Most employers however prefer to hire a candidate who has completed an Academy of Pharmacy Practice and Management approved training course, as their guidelines are considered to be the 'gold standard' as far as desired education for nuclear pharmacy technicians.

Courses approved by the ASHP - American Society of Healthcare Pharmacists - are also usually considered to be among the best too.

In addition, before they begin considering becoming a nuclear pharmacy technician and looking for an appropriate training course, techs should consider how far they wish to take their education. Often a two-year program meets many employers' basic requirements but those who complete a more in depth four year program, can expect to command higher salaries - initially at least.

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Nuclear Pharmacy Technician Training Programs

According to the ASHP, a certified pharmacy technician should complete a minimum of an additional six months to two years of additional education and on the job training in order to meet their standards for a nuclear pharmacy technician.

These programs, that can be hard to find but are increasing in number, are usually offered at community colleges and at some vocational schools. Some grant a basic certification while others grant an Associate's Degree.

The latter is preferred by some employers, but students do have the option to begin working in an entry level nuclear pharmacy tech position after 9 months to gain experience while still continuing their studies part-time. In addition, some students choose to complete a Bachelor's Degree as well, and even consider becoming a formally certified Nuclear Pharmacy Technician themselves.

Training topics for NPT's include the following: 

  • Radiation protection, biology and safety
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Maths applicable to the practice of nuclear medicine
  • Shipment, receipt of radioactive materials (DOT regulations) 
  • Radiation physics and instrumentation

The ASHP themselves caution that the programs you might see as advertised as 'online courses' with no practical element involved do not provide enough additional education to become a nuclear pharmacy technician even for a certified pharmacy technician. The best courses do contain some online elements, but choosing one with a practical requirement is a must.

According to both the ASHP and the Academy of Pharmacy Practice and Management any acceptable Nuclear Pharmacy Technician Certification course should enable the graduate to do all the following:

  • Accurately transcribe and generate computer labels without error for radiopharmaceutical orders
  • Have a good working knowledge of the brand and generic names and abbreviations of commonly used radiopharmaceuticals.
  • Define terms specific to the measurement of radioactivity
  • Understand radiopharmaceutical terminology
  • Demonstrate accurate mixing and compounding techniques
  • Demonstrate good communication skills
  • Prepare written inventory reports
  • Demonstrate a good understanding of HIPAA and medical insurance billing practices as they relate to radiopharmaceuticals.

In addition to classroom assignments most nuclear pharmacy technician courses include a 180 hour practical component that is a combination of formal lab work and practical experience in a real nuclear pharmacy setting.

In addition to formal schooling some employers do offer paid training to candidates that demonstrate promise and are willing to agree to work for them after completing the training successfully. This can be a great option for those who are eager to 'get to work' as soon as possible.

Finally, becoming a nuclear pharmacy technician isn't for everyone, but those interested in a challenging, almost cutting edge branch of pharmacy technology it may be an option well worth considering and the outlook for growth in the number of nuclear pharmacy tech jobs remains positive.

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