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Insight into medical physics?

  1. Apr 16, 2013 #1
    Hi all, I'm new to the forum. I chanced across some threads regarding medical physics but I didn't want to hijack someone else's post to ask some questions. So I'm just finishing up my first year of college and I've been trying to get more insight into various careers that I could pursue. Medical physics seems interesting but it looks too repetitive in a clinical setting. Could any medical physicists on this forum talk about their experiences?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 16, 2013 #2
    Some parts of your job as a clinical medical physicist are certainly repetitive. Checking that equipment performance and radiation measurements are consistent over long periods of time is by nature a repetitive task. The review of patient charts and treatment plans is typically all done in a very similar fashion, so that can also seem repetitive at times.

    Medical physics is definitely a medical specialty, and medicine is highly regulated. From my experience, radiation oncology is more flexible than a lot of other medical sub-fields, but it is getting more and more regimented as time goes on.

    Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for creative thinking in a clinical setting. Physicists often help with treatment planning for special procedures (stereotactic radiosurgery, stereotactic ablative body radiotherapy, high dose-rate brachytherapy, among others), and I tend to find all of those cases interesting and unique because every patient poses a different challenge for finding the "best" treatment plan solution.

    Many (but not all) physicists also engage in clinical research. Developing new radiotherapy techniques, finding solutions to various clinical problems, evaluating the performance and characteristics of new equipment or sharing implementation techniques, developing new methods for evaluating the quality of treatment plans, investigating new algorithms for improving the quality of medical imaging, etc. are all common research topics. Physicists may also be involved in clinical trials, and the scope of their participation can vary greatly.

    What people find personally and professionally rewarding in their careers varies a lot from person to person. Some medical physicists prefer to do consulting and do a lot of traveling to different sites for as-needed work, others have permanent positions in community hospitals or private practice where they become a regular contributor to the clinical process, and others have academic positions where they primarily teach and do research. Many physicists have a mix of the above responsibilities.

    I personally do not find my job terribly repetitive. In the past couple of weeks I've been involved in the following:

    (1) Worked with hospital pulmonologists in making purchasing decisions for fiducial markers for patient receiving lung biopsies that will be treated within our department
    (2) Performed a clinical evaluation on a new immobilization system we are using after a physician expressed concern that it wasn't providing the same level of immobilization as our previous system
    (3) Assisted my radiation oncologist with preparing and delivering prostate cancer presentations to various organizations around town in an effort to raise awareness
    (4) Began the process of amending our radioactive materials license to include a new facility we intend to start using for brachytherapy procedures
    (5) Submitted a request to our institutional review board to begin collecting data for an interesting case study to be eventually published

    Of course this was in addition to my routine clinical job duties (quality assurance, treatment planning, chart reviews).

    Have you considered touching base with some medical physicists in your area to see if they would be willing to let you shadow them for a few days so you can get a better idea of the day-to-day work they do?
  4. Apr 16, 2013 #3
    My father is medical physicist, I just never really had too many talks with him about exactly what he does. I know most of what he does but I wanted some more perspectives into the field. I also just wanted to see if the career is particularly fulfilling for him, as he originally did nuclear physics and worked on nuclear weapons.
  5. Apr 16, 2013 #4


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    I would echo everything Eric has said.

    I personally find the career extremely fulfilling. I tend to be a little more academic than a typical "clinical" medical physicist so I teach and mentor graduate students and residents and do research on a regular basis, but that's still balanced out with a hefty clinical workload. I'm challenged intellectually just about every day on the job, and though it may not fit everyone's definition, I consider myself "doing" physics on a regular basis. And on top of that I'm making a difference in the lives of people who are very sick.

    Downsides to the career for me include:
    - working long hours, sometimes on short notice
    - meetings (10% necessary and important, 90% fluff)
    - high levels of stress, particularly through training and certification exams
    - rarely will people know what it is you do

    But obviously, the upsides outweigh all of these, otherwise I wouldn't be here.
  6. Apr 16, 2013 #5
    What do you specialize in? Radiation therapy or nuclear medicine? Also, from what my dad's told me everything is extremely easy compared to what he used to do. But I've read that a typical medical physicist only does one specialty and only approves plans made by the dosimetrists. Is that true? I know that my dad does much more than just supervise.
  7. Apr 16, 2013 #6


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    I, along with about 80-85% of medical physicists, specialize in radiation therapy. The other branches include diagnostic imaging, MRI, nuclear medicine, and perhaps radiation safety.

    I don't know what your dad used to do. There have been a lot of changes in the field over the last twenty years though as technology has advanced. Even basic measurements or basic calculations used to be a lot more time consuming. Now, a lot has been automated, but the treatments and therefore the associated measurements have become more complex. It's still an extremely challenging field in my opinion, and will be for the foreseeable future.

    Most physicists are only certified in one subfield. Some expand into other fields. This can be either for diversity of interest, or simply because of job opportunities.

    In radiation oncology, physicists do a lot more than simply approve the plans that dosimetrists make (although, on the surface that's what it may look like). In some centres physicists will do some of the planning themselves. Usually though, you have a dedicated dosimetrist or team of treatment planners to work on the planning because that is such a hefty workload. The physicist is called in to assist with particularly challenging plans or to deal with all of those "this is the first time we've had to do this" type questions. Physicists will also act as administrators on the treatment planning system, assuming responsibility for maintaining an accurate model of the linac output parameters. They can also be called in to help with biological modeling - do we have to change the prescription if this patient misses three fractions? Or at what point do we change the monitor units (machine setting to control dose) to adapt for a patient who's lost significant weight? On top of this, they establish and maintain planning procedures, and train the dosimetrists - particularly when new technology or software is introduced.
  8. Apr 16, 2013 #7
    Thanks for replying again. I'm pretty sure my dad does all of those, maybe not radiation safety consulting but he does prepare the practice's clinics for yearly inspections and regular checks. I posted near the end of my second comment that my dad used to do nuclear physics and worked on nuclear weapons in China. But when we moved to the US in 2000 he decided to change to medical physics in 2001 or 2002. I'm positive that my dad also does most of the planning despite there being 3 therapists and 2 dosimetrists; most likely because the practice is only 7 years old and he was the only physicist there from its creation so he had to teach everyone how to do everything. It is his first/only job in the US, I guess he's just really good at what he does. Also, how much do medical physicists earn? Could you give like a range and sources? I know that my dad has heard that he is the single highest paid medical physicist from the chief medical physicist of the big radiation therapy clinic chain that owns the three centers my dad handles. I think the radiation oncology clinic chain has like 140 centers along the East Coast.
  9. Apr 17, 2013 #8


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    It varies considerably according to geographical location, highest degree, certification, years of experience, etc. It's easy to look at a median number and think that we earn quite a bit, but you also have to figure on considerable investment to get to those high numbers (undergrad, grad, residency...) The somewhat upsetting thing is that if you look at career-integrated earnings radiation therapists can actually come out ahead of physicists!

    Your best bet to answer this with details would be to get a copy of the AAPM's annual salary survey. It usually requires membership with the AAPM, but I think that's worth it for a student seriously considering medical physics as a career.
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