Nuclear Medicine Physician Vs. Physicist

May 30, 2020

Comparing Nuclear Medicine Physicians to Physicists

Both of these careers require years of specialized education, but their main focuses once they enter their fields can be different. Nuclear medicine physicians aim to diagnose and treat patients, while physicists desire to understand the formation and movement of the universe. Find out more about the similarities and differences below.

Job Title Educational Requirements Median Salary (2019)* Job Growth (2018-2028)*
Nuclear Medicine Physicians Doctoral Degree $208,000 (Physicians and Surgeons) 7% (Physicians and Surgeons)
Physicists Doctoral Degree $122,220 9% (Physicists and Astronomers)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of Nuclear Medicine Physicians vs. Physicists

Nuclear medicine physicians use radiation to create images of organs and treat cancer. Physicists develop a better understanding of matter and how the world works on a molecular level. It should be noted, however, that both can and do work in hospital settings. Though nuclear medicine physicians are responsible for meeting with patients and diagnosing their illnesses using radiology, physicists can assist with this by creating medical equipment.

Nuclear Medicine Physicians

When working with a patient, the first thing these doctors do is understand the symptoms, medical history, and family history of the person. After adding any important updates to a patient's chart, the nuclear medicine physician may conduct tests to further determine the health of the patient. One of these tests is called scintigraphy and includes the doctor injecting radioactive materials into the patient (or having the individual swallow a pill form) and taking images of infected or damaged organs. If the person has cancer, these doctors can administer radiopharmaceuticals to help treat tumors.

Job responsibilities of a nuclear medicine physician include:

  • Ensuring the quality of a diagnostic image taken to determine the extent of a disease
  • Understanding and interpreting any abnormalities in test results
  • Reporting findings to a patient in an empathetic but clinical manner
  • Explaining to patients the risks of using radiation to treat diseases


Using long-standing, scientific theories, these scientists create models and test natural phenomena. As they conduct experiments on things like sub-atomic particles, they may use particle accelerators and electron microscopes. Beyond simply testing the properties of time and space, physicists can also become involved in medical research. They may create and test new equipment used in hospitals, such as magnetic resonance imaging machines, or they could help plan radiation treatment for patients with cancer by calculating the lowest effective dose that will also keep the patient safe. Additionally, these scientists assist with decontaminating an area after a radiological spill.

Job responsibilities of a physicist include:

  • Applying for research grants to continue their studies and develop new theories and technologies
  • Training radiology technicians to maintain and safely use medical equipment, such as x-ray machines
  • Analyzing radioactive isotopes in laboratories
  • Calibrating and repairing laboratory equipment, like ionization radiation meters

Related Careers

As someone who may be interested in a career as a nuclear medicine physician, you could also look into a position as a radiology tech, since these professionals work together to test patients using radiation. Alternatively, if a career as a physicist seems interesting to you, research into a job as a nuclear engineer may be helpful, as both develop equipment necessary for medical radiation.

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