Medical students need more exposure to molecular imaging, nuclear medicine experts say

Demand for molecular imaging is likely to grow in the coming years, but most trainees have little to no awareness of the burgeoning opportunity during medical school. Nuclear medicine experts say students need more exposure to the field to meet this growing need.

Physicians from four prominent U.S. medical institutions surveyed trainees and faculty involved in nuclear medicine and molecular imaging to gauge unmet opportunities for bolstering exposure. Among the trainees surveyed, more than 60% said they only received surface-level information about the specialty, while 80% pursued the opportunity only after they graduated medical school.

Thomas S.C. Ng, MD, PhD, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Joint Program in Nuclear Medicine, and colleagues want a change, they wrote June 27 in Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology.

“The surveys highlight a need to increase medical student interest in NM/MI and to engage them at an earlier stage of training than is experienced currently,” the authors wrote Saturday. “Better integration of NM/MI into preclinical and clinical curricula should be pursued, along with mentoring and research experiences.”

Nuclear medicine clinicians made a similar call last November in Academic Radiology, after analyzing workforce trends, training pathways and the online presence of nuclear radiology training programs. They found that over the past decade, traditional training pathways declined by 25%, while the number of trainees has dropped by more than half.

For the current study, Ng et al. sent out two email surveys: one to 78 nuclear medicine/molecular imaging trainees, and another to 44 U.S. medical school faculty directly involved with student education.

Below are a few important takeaways:

  • Students and faculty reported glaring differences in their levels of exposure to molecular imaging. Of the latter group, 76% said they gave NM/MI didactics in preclinical years, typically 1-5 lectures per year. However, 65% of trainees claimed to have zero preclinical exposure to the field.
  • Only 9.3% of faculty claimed their medical school program offered no clinical NM/MI experience—a figure 38.7 percentage points lower than what trainees reported.
  • Both trainees and faculty agreed that NM/MI should be pursued alongside diagnostic radiology training (67% and 80%, respectively).
  • Most trainees were attracted to the clinical pathology aspect of the subspecialty (42%), followed by therapeutics/ theranostics (30%) and technological advances in the field (13%).

So why the difference in opinion? The researchers aren’t completely sure but claimed recall bias “may play a role,” and noted that modern academic clinical practice places time and effort limits on faculty, especially those without an associated imaging department, they added.

National societies, such as the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, can help play a role here, and assist in designing generalized curricula and foster development through mentorship networks such as  SNMMI Connect.

“Given the need to expose medical students early before they choose a specialty...and given the pervasiveness of NM/MI in all aspects of medicine, including therapy, integrating NM/MI into preclinical basic sciences or organ system-based curricula as well as in non-imaging clerkships may be important,” the authors concluded.

“Future NM/MI training pathways should be cognizant of career opportunities for trainees, whether it is integrated within radiology or otherwise,” they added later.