What Is a Nuclear Radiologist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 08, 2023
3 min read

A nuclear radiologist, also known as a nuclear medicine physician, is a doctor who specializes in testing and treating people using a type of radioactive materials. With this technology, they can examine muscle tissue, organs, and blood and treat problems in those areas.

Nuclear radiology uses substances called radiopharmaceuticals. The radiation in them can treat certain types of illnesses or illuminate a part of the body during a scan with a special camera. The nuclear radiologist analyzes the resulting images of where and how the substances were absorbed in the body to diagnose a medical condition.

Nuclear radiologists work in hospitals, research centers, universities, or clinics. Mostly, nuclear radiologists conduct tests, but they are also qualified to give treatment. 

On a day-to-day basis, nuclear radiologists will administer radiopharmaceuticals, do body scans to see how those substances interact with the body, view test results, and discuss their findings with patients and doctors. Depending on the findings, a nuclear radiologist’s role in a patient’s care may end there, and the person’s doctor will use the results to form a treatment plan. If, based on the testing, a patient requires radiopharmaceuticals, the nuclear radiologist will continue to be a part of the treatment plan.

Nuclear radiologists commonly use nuclear imaging to track and treat heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, internal bleeding, and organ function, among other issues.

Nuclear radiologists are physicians, so they must complete a bachelor’s program and attend an accredited medical school — this usually takes a total of 8 years. After completing medical school and becoming a fully licensed physician, they will get special education and training in nuclear medicine. These programs usually take up to 3 years.

Once they have completed a post-medical-school program, they can apply to get certified as a Doctor of Nuclear Medicine by the American Board of Nuclear Medicine. 

In most cases, your regular physician will refer you to a nuclear radiologist. Nuclear radiologists often work with other physicians as an integral part of a treatment plan. For example, nuclear radiologists often work with oncologists to treat and monitor cancer. 

Your doctor may refer you to a nuclear radiologist because they need more information before they can treat or diagnose you. Perhaps they know what might be going on, but they need a more detailed or comprehensive scan before they make any decisions. 

Some of the most common tests nuclear radiologists perform are:

  • Breast scans
  • Brain scans
  • Thyroid and parathyroid scans
  • Tumor scans
  • Lung scans
  • Gastrointestinal scans
  • Renal scans
  • Bone scans 
  • Heart scans
  • Blood scans for blood diseases

The process of getting a nuclear medicine scan depends on the type of test you need. Plus, each testing site may have its own protocols. However, the process generally includes:

  • Taking radiopharmaceuticals: The nuclear radiologist will either give you an injection or a pill to swallow. The substance you take is often called a tracer. The time between the administration and the scan can vary from a couple of minutes to a few days. 
  • Getting ready for the scan: You will be asked to take off any jewelry or clothing that may interfere with the testing. Some scans may require more advanced preparation, such as fasting or diet change.
  • Getting scanned: Usually, getting scanned involves lying very still while a gamma camera takes pictures of the radiopharmaceuticals in your body. It’s important to stay still at this time to get the most precise photos possible because the interaction of radionuclides in the body can be subtle.

Depending on your situation, either the nuclear radiologist or your physician will go over your results and work with you to develop the right treatment plan for your health.