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Medical Physicist

What They Do

Medical Scientists Career Video

Insider Info

Medical physicists provide expertise in a hospital or cancer center. They ensure that when a doctor says a patient is going to require radiation therapy, the radiation will be properly applied, in the right dose, to the right area and with the right machinery.

Medical physicists are responsible for three main areas in the cancer center environment.

One thing they do is develop and introduce the employees at the center to new technologies and new techniques for applying radiation. They transfer that knowledge from other centers into their own. Occasionally, they develop new procedures and machinery.

Mike Patterson is head of medical physics at a cancer center. He says medical physicists are often the ones who design the equipment, known as immobilization devices, to ensure that the person who needs repeated radiation in a specific area can be positioned precisely at each treatment session.

Medical physicists have a second role as supervisors. They supervise the technical staff, including lab technicians and equipment operators. They ensure the machines are safe and meet strict quality control standards.

Medical physicists are also fundamental in the development of a treatment plan for the cancer patient.

Medical physicists contribute to the effectiveness of radiological imaging procedures by assuring radiation safety and helping to develop improved imaging techniques for mammograms, CT scans and ultrasounds.

They provide all instruction in radiation physics to residents in radiology through formal lectures and on-the-job training. And they participate in research projects.

In the U.S., they are responsible for ensuring that imaging and treatment facilities meet the rules and regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and various state health departments.

John Schreiner is president of a college of medical physicists. The work is largely suitable for the disabled, Schreiner says. There are no specific physical requirements. "You need a brain," he says. "If you don't have a brain, then you're going to have a couple of points against you."

Clinical medical physicists are employed in medical schools, hospitals, clinics or private practice.

These physicists divide their time between clinical service and consultation, research and development and teaching.

Schreiner says that machines used during the day for treatment have to be checked and maintained at night when they are not in use. That often makes for long days.

"This work is not 9 to 5," he says.

At a Glance

Make sure radiation treatments are performed properly

  • Medical physicists ensure the machines are safe and meet strict quality control standards
  • You could work in medical schools, hospitals, clinics or private practices
  • You'll likely need a master's or PhD in medical physics, physics, radiation biology or a related discipline


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