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Physics Medical Physics - A general job description as opposed to a radiation oncologist

  1. May 13, 2012 #1
    Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologist

    Forgive my ignorance, but Medical Physics/Radiation Oncology is one of those fields who's typical work day is still a mystery to me.

    Are medical physicists the "primary guy" when it comes to treating patients with cancer, that is, do they spend most of their time in the clinic seeing patients or actually doing procedures? Is one done more often than the other and to what extent?

    Is it, in general, better to go straight to an accredited PhD program in Medical Physics after undergrad as opposed to an "MS then PhD" route? Would pursuing an MS essentially be a waste of time since most employers want their physicists to be board certified, have a PhD, and completed an accredited residency program?

    Are medical physicists in charge of operating the actual machinery that is providing the radiation treatment to the patient…or is that more in the realm of a radiation oncologist?

    In general, would you say that if one if looking to do a medical field with procedures and is really into technology, then they should avoid a field like medical physics and instead go into Medicine?

    What is the typical timeline when it comes to starting a career in medical physics after finishing undergrad?

    What is the job market like for board certified medical physicists?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 13, 2012 #2
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    A "medical phycist" isn't a doctor, you dont get to prescribe anything or inject anything. I have no idea why you would want a Ph.D., all they do is prepare radio-pharmecuticals, perhaps put patients inside machines, calculate dosages & run machines etc. Oncologists are doctors and not medical physicists.
  4. May 13, 2012 #3


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    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Generally medical physicists spend very little time with patients. Most of our clinical duties occur "behind the scenes." We are responsible for the correct operation of the machines that plan and deliver radiation in a therapeutic or diagnostic manner. To that extent we commission and calibrate the equipment, design-implement-supervise quality assurance programs, we administer the networks the systems run on, we supervise or act as consultants in the treatment planning process, and in general we act as problem solvers around the clinic. We also play a role in radiation safety - helping to design new facilities and often hold roles as radiation safety officers. On top of that we are researchers, creating, developing and implementing the next generation of medical devices.

    We do not diagnose patients or prescribe radiation. That is the role of the radiation oncologists. We usually do not set up the patient and deliver the radiation. That is the role of the radiation therapists.

    Physicists will commonly have patient contact in a consulting role. One example might be when a patient with a pacemaker needs to be treated. A physicist would be called in to estimate the amount of radiation the pacemaker will receive and provide information as to the relative risks of malfuntion at a particular dose/quality of radiation. Even then, the contact is often just a simple measurement.

    Many employers - particularly in the US - still prefer to hire at the MSc level for a couple of reasons. First, a PhD often means a higher salary. Second, PhDs tend to be research-oriented. Many smaller clinics want clinical workhorses. (This is a bad long-term method of operation in my opinion, but it doesn't change the fact that it is.)

    That said, the PhD generally makes you more competative in the market for residency positions. An MSc is not a waste of time, even if your eventual goal is the PhD. It can give you a taste of the field without the committment of a 4+ year program and often if you do the PhD afterward it will be an extension of the MSc work.

    Most radiation oncologists won't actually know how to turn a linear accelerator on. The day-to-day operation is more the realm of the radiation therapists.

    I'm not sure what you mean here. If you think you would enjoy working on the technology side of medicine and you enjoy applied physics, medical physics is a career worth investigating. If you want lots of patient contact, or perfer your physics on the more fundamental side, or if you want to go home at five o'clock every night, medical physics might not be for you.

    An MSc takes 2-3 years.
    A PhD can take 4-6 years or more. It depends on the project.
    A residency takes 2-3 years.

    Certified medical physicists are generally able to find jobs right now. The big issue in the profession currently is the bottleneck that occurs prior to certification - that there aren't enough residencies.

    It's also worth mentioning that this is a small profession. So "able to find jobs" doesn't mean "able to find jobs in the city/institution of your choice."

    All of the current data doesn't mean much though. If you start today, you'll be looking at a completely different ballgame when you're going to be looking for a job. What I can say is that the likelihood of a miracle cure for cancer is low, the incidence of cancer will go up, and the field of radiation therapy is a cost-effective tool for cancer management - all of which point to steady grown in the forseeable futute.

    Sometimes we do operate brachytherapy remote afterloaders though.

    I think you've been misinformed about the medical physics profession.
    Last edited: May 13, 2012
  5. May 15, 2012 #4
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Amount of patient contact can vary a lot depending on your location and the team you work with. Where I studied there was fairly limited contact between the medical physicist and the patient.

    Now, I see patients on most days in some professional capacity. In my clinic the medical physicists are responsible for one-on-one patient education regarding radiation safety after permanent prostate seed implants. Medical physicists are also present and assist during simulation of all special procedures such as stereotactic body radiotherapy or radiosurgery. We're also involved in the setup of those patients for treatment and we monitor their treatment at all fractions. As Choppy said, we also perform dosimetric measurements when ordered by the physician, and these require some patient contact.

    Often our radiation oncologists call a physicist into the initial consult to help answer technical questions the patient might ask (though the physicians are more than capable of answering to a satisfactory degree, I think they just enjoy showing off their team). We may also be called in during consults if it will be a more unusual sort of treatment that requires fabrication of special treatment devices, which we also build and fit to the patient during simulation.

    Though not quite the same, we also get a few patients here and there who simply ask to speak to the medical physicist out of interest/curiosity. Many of those patients are also scientists of some sort or engineers (or used to be) and are curious to talk to the physicist just to learn more about how a physicist got involved with medicine.
  6. May 17, 2012 #5
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    See aapm.org/medical_physicist/default.asp
  7. May 18, 2012 #6
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Thank you all for your wonderful answers.

    For someone currently pursuing a Biochemistry B.S., is Medical Physics as a potential career option out of the table since my major is not Physics? It's not that I wouldn't switch to Physics if I could, but my current school does not even offer a Physics major.
  8. May 18, 2012 #7
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Graduate schools want to see physics backgrounds, but many don't require specifically a physics degree. I studied medical physics alongside mathematics majors, nuclear engineering majors, and others. Look at the list of accredited programs and check out graduate program pre-requisites.

    They will require varying degrees of coursework in mathematics, physics, computer science, anatomy, physiology, and statistics as pre-requisites. However, your actual major could very well be biochemistry so long as you fulfill those requirements. Some of the pre-requisites may be waived for admission purposes as long as you complete them within a certain timeframe of entering graduate school, but that is done on a case-by-case basis and depends on the particular program.
  9. May 18, 2012 #8
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    I don't know how you could possibly pass the Board exams, or even get into a medphys graduate program, without a physics or biophysics major. On-the-job training is no longer an option in the USA although it may be in other countries. This is a *medical* science, so there are strict medical laws, certification by national medical boards, and even licensure requirements in some states. A mistake in radiation oncology can literally kill someone. Read this for more info:
  10. May 18, 2012 #9


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    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Medical physics programs vary in their admission requirements. Generally they will require a bachelor's degree in physics "or equivalent." The "or equivalent" usually means things like engineering physics, electrical or nuclear engineering, physical chemistry, etc. In most circumstances a biochemistry degree won't suffice. In some programs you have to write the same comprehensive exam that other physics students write. Admission is also rather competative these days, and meeting the bare minimum requirements for coursework won't necessarily make you competative.
  11. May 18, 2012 #10
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    Oh, wow. Guess I can't do Medical Physics then. What I don't understand though is how would I not be able to pass the boards if my undergraduate major wasn't in Physics? Wouldn't it be the job of the medical physics program you're in to teach you the material necessary to pass them?
  12. May 18, 2012 #11
    Re: Medical Physics - A general "job description" as opposed to a radiation oncologis

    The MP program won't teach you basic mechanics, optics, atomic and nuclear physics, circuitry, etc., all of which are on part one of the ABR exams. The first part (written) is basic physics Trivial Pursuit plus some medical physics. You must pass that to advance to part two (orals).
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