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Who is a medical physicist?

A medical physicist is one that has gained knowledge and certification in medical physics. Medical physics is a branch of physics that deals with the application of physics to medical practices.

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Its applications include but are not limited to the use of ionizing radiation in the diagnosis and treatment of human disease.

Therapeutic procedures involving ionizing radiation most commonly use high-energy megavoltage x-rays and γ-rays or megavoltage electrons (radiotherapy also known as radiation therapy, radiation oncology, and therapeutic radiology).

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Historically, Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895, Henri Becquerel’s discovery of naturally occurring radioactivity in 1896, and Pierre Curie and Marie Curie-discovery Skodowska’s of radium in 1898 all served as the foundation for the study and application of ionizing radiation.

Other applications of physics in the diagnosis of disease include the use of nuclear bioelectrical investigations of the brain and heart, biomagnetic investigations of the brain, and the use of heat for cancer therapy.

We will be looking at the impacts of medical physicists in the later part of this article, so I suggest you stay glued to the very last dot.

In the past years, there has been a significant evolution in the discipline of medical physics. It has grown from being just a branch of applied science on the fringes of physics into an important discipline that can now be placed on equal footing with other more traditional branches of physics such as nuclear physics, and particle physics.

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Medical physics may sometimes also be referred to as biomedical physics, medical biophysics, applied physics in medicine, physics applications in medical science, radiological physics, or hospital radio-physics, however, there are significant differences in the subspecialties.

The medical physics specialty covers several diverse areas of medicine. It is therefore very fundamental for medical physicists to concentrate and work on only one of the four specific subspecialties of medical physics:

Subspecialties/Branches of medical physics

  • Diagnostic radiology physics
  • Nuclear medicine physics
  • Radiotherapy physics
  • Health Physics

Medical Physicist

Diagnostic radiology physics

This subspecialty deals with areas of testing and optimization such as radiographic X-rays, fluoroscopy, mammography, angiography, and computed tomography, as well as non-ionizing radiation modalities such as ultrasound, and MRI.

Nuclear medicine physics

Nuclear medicine physics also referred to as molecular imaging physics deals with diagnostic imaging using radionuclides.

It uses radiation to provide information about the functioning of a person’s specific organs or to treat disease.

Radiotherapy physics

This is also called radiation oncology physics it deals with the treatment of cancer with ionizing radiation. It involves linear accelerator systems and kilovoltage x-ray treatment units on a daily basis, as well as other modalities such as TomoTherapy, and gamma knife.

Health Physics

This deals with the study of radiation hazards and radiation protection. Health physics is the applied physics of radiation protection for health and healthcare purposes.

Educational Requirements for Medical Physicists

The pioneers in medical physics came from traditional branches of physics. By chance or choice they ended up working in nuclear medicine, radiology, or radiotherapy, and through on-the-job training developed the necessary skills and knowledge required for work in a medical environment.

Since medical physicists occupy a responsible position in the medical environment, they are required to have a broad background of education and experience.

The need for a foundational education in physics and mathematics is crucial, but medical physicists must also have a fundamental understanding of other medical sciences, such as anatomy, physiology, genetics, and biochemistry because of their close collaboration with medical professionals.

Currently, the most common path to a career in medical physics is academic progression, through a B.Sc. degree in one of the physical sciences but preferably in Physics, to an M.Sc. degree in Medical Physics, and then to a Ph.D. degree (doctorate) in Medical Physics.

The minimum academic requirement for a practicing medical physicist is an M.Sc. degree in Medical Physics, and this level is adequate for physicists who are mainly interested in clinical and service responsibilities.

However, medical physicists working in academic environments should possess a Ph.D. degree in Medical Physics.

A medical physicist cannot be created solely through academic training. In addition to academic training, practical experience with medical issues and equipment is crucial.

This can be obtained by on-the-job clinical education or, ideally, through a structured two-year traineeship program in a hospital following graduation with an M.Sc. or Ph.D. in medical physics.

Certification of a medical physicist

Certification in medical physics is obtained from a national or international professional society and attests that the certified medical physicist is able to competently execute a job or task in the area covered by the certification.

The certification is usually attained through a rigorous examination process run by an appropriate national medical physics organization or medical organization.

Skills required for medical physicist

Here are some of the essential skills required for you to be a medical physicist;

  • Analytical
  • critical-thinking
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Good communication

Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs

Many universities around the world offer academic and clinical education programs in medical physics. To achieve international recognition for its graduates, a medical physics educational program should hold accreditation by an international accreditation body that attests to the program’s meeting rigorous academic and clinical standards in medical physics.

Currently, there are two such international bodies, the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs (CAMPEP) and the International Medical Physics Certification Board (IMPCB).

The CAMPEP – www.campep.org/, was founded in the late 1980s and is currently sponsored by five organizations: the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), the American College of Radiology (ACR), American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), Canadian Organization of Medical Physicists (COMP), and the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

In September 2015, 139 medical physics education programs (49 academic and 90 residency programs) were accredited by the CAMPEP.

The IMPCB – www.impcb.org/ was formed in 2010 by 11 charter member organizations in medical physics.

Career Route in Medical Physics

Below is a detailed career route in medical physics;

medical physicist

The ideal educational and professional steps are as follows:

  1. Undergraduate B.Sc. degree in Physics (typical duration: 4 years)
  2. Graduate degree (M.Sc. and/or Ph.D.) in Medical Physics from an accredited medical physics program. Typical duration of an M.Sc. program is 2 years; typical duration of Ph.D. program is 3 years or more after M.Sc. studies.
  3. Residency in medical physics from an accredited residency program in medical physics. Typical duration of a residency program for a resident holding M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree in Medical Physics is 2 years.
  4. Successful completion of a national certification examination in one of the four subspecialties of medical physics.

Medical physics is a tremendously gratifying field to work in, and medical physicists do fascinating and varied work.

The four steps above can be followed to become a medical physicist in theory, however due to the relatively small number of authorized academic and residency programs in medical physics, the steps are still somewhat challenging to follow in practice.

Medical Physicist work scope

Doctors, nurses, technicians, and patients collaborate with medical physicists. Teaching, clinical care and consultation, and research and development are their three core areas of responsibility.

  • Consult with physician colleagues
  • Develop new safety procedures
  • Ensure equipment is safe, effective, and working properly
  • Plan radiation treatments for cancer patients
  • Research new treatment options for cancer, heart disease, or mental illness
  • Study how radiation effects the body
  • Teach and train future medical physicists, residents, and medical students

Medical physicist salary in the USA

The salaries of medical physicists vary from region to region. As you know, like other professions, there are different determinants of salary which may include but are not limited to work experience, level of academic acquisition, work organization, certifications, and some complementary skills.

Amidst these variations, we conducted thorough research to make sure you get the perfect answers you seek. It would interest you to know the salary of doctors in Singapore for 2023.

We compared the various reliable salary evaluation platforms and came up with this average salary range. In the United States of America, $70 to $110 per hour. On annual basis, it can range from $130,000 to $180,000.

Medical physicist salary in the UK

As a qualified medical physicist, you’re likely to be employed on Band 7 – £40,057 to £45,839 annually.

Salaries for principal and consultant scientists range from £47,126 (Band 8) to £108,075 (Band 9), depending on your experience and training.

Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.

Medical physicist salary in Australia

In Australia, the average salary for a medical physicist is AUD 173,103 per year or AUD 83 per hour. Medical physicists typically earn between AUD 117,364 and AUD 212,051 annually.

The greatest level of schooling for a medical physicist is often a doctorate degree. This examination of remuneration is based on salary survey data gathered from anonymous Australian employees and employers.

Medical physicist job description

Below is a breakdown of what medical physicists do;

MEDICAL PHYSICIST

  1. Administration
  2. Clinical service and consultation
  3. Research and development
  4. Teaching and mentoring

They frequently work in hospitals and other healthcare settings. Medical physicists also work as faculty members at hospitals that are affiliated with medical schools.

The professional staff of the hospital includes physicists who hold professional posts in one of the clinical departments in many non-teaching hospitals.

Many medical physicists are typically employed by larger teaching hospitals, and they are grouped into medical physics departments that offer medical physics services to clinical departments.

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Reference

British Journal of Radiology, Suppl. 25: Central Axis Depth Dose Data for Use in Radiotherapy (British Institute of Radiology, London, 1996)

J.R. Cameron, J.G. Skofronick, R.M. Grant, The Physics of the Body, 2nd edn. (Medical Physics Publishing, Madison, 1999)

D.Greene,P.C.Williams,LinearAcceleratorsforRadiationTherapy,2ndedn.(InstituteofPhysics Publishing, Bristol, 1997)

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