How to Become a Medical Physicist

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According to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), medical physicists “assure the safe and effective delivery of radiation” in the diagnosis or treatment of a patient, as prescribed by a physician or other practitioner.

Medical physicists protect the patient from overexposure to radioactive materials, make sure that the equipment is running properly and is being utilized correctly, and help with the positioning of the patient for the best result.

According to Niek Schreuder, Senior Vice President of Medical Physics and Technology for ProCure Treatment Centers, the duties of medical physicists are generally divided into two disciplines: Diagnostic Radiology (Imaging) and Radiation Oncology.

Mr. Schreuder provided some additional insight into the role of Medical Physicists.

Typical Work Week and Basic Job Responsibilities

Diagnostic Radiology physicists handle quality assurance of all diagnostic devices used in radiology departments, primarily CT, MRI, and x-ray imaging systems.

Radiation Oncology Physicists' duties are generally divided into three groups:

  • Beam measurements and quality assurance: Beam measurement and QA includes calibrating the radiation therapy equipment and ensuring the equipment functions correctly and safely. This ensures that the correct doses are delivered to the patients, and the equipment can be operated safely by the personnel. This group also deals with developing new treatment modalities and equipment.
  • Treatment planning: Treatment planning entails calculating the doses and dose distribution in the patient’s body, using sophisticated treatment planning systems.
  • Patient positioning: Patient positioning specialists prepare the patient for treatment using systems and methods that will allow for patient comfort, stability, and reproducibility. The patient positioning systems are used to bring the patient into the treatment position, verify that the patient is in the treatment position and ensures that the patient remains in the treatment position during treatments.

Education and Certification

How and where can one earn the necessary certifications to become a physicist? The base qualification is a Master's Degree that should include, or be supplemented by, a lot of specific courses in medical physics, anatomy, and biology. After the master's degree, you need to qualify for the three American Board of Radiology (ABR) exams:

  • Part I: everybody with a master's degree and the required coursework will qualify.
  • Part II: This exam requires at least two years of experiential training beyond obtaining a Masters Degree. After 2012 you have to have completed a 2-year CAMPEP (Commission for the Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs) approved residency program to qualify for the Part II exam.
  • Part III: This is an oral exam that you can take the year after you passed Part II. Part III exams are offered in June each year, while the written part I and II is offered in Aug/Sept each year.

After passing Part III, you receive the ABR certification.

Basic Skills Required

Obviously, a good understanding of radiation physics is needed, including the principles of all kinds of radiation used in the medical arena.

Good interpersonal skills are also very important, as medical physicists need to interact with a large team of radiation oncologists, therapists, nurses, and dosimetrists, in addition to interacting with patients.

What's to Like

You can help somebody to receive a cure for his or her cancer, hence creating hope.

What's Not to Like

The tougher things about this role include the fact that you work with very sick people that often may not have good prognoses or any significant life expectancy. The other challenge is that a single mistake by a medical physicist can certainly impact many patients' lives, so it’s an emotionally tough job.

Average Income

Salaries range between $140,000 and $250,000 for board-certified medical physicists, depending on the number of years of experience beyond board certification.