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Medical physics

  1. Jun 27, 2011 #1

    I am not from a science background; nevertheless i am self taught basic chemistry and biology through my fitness career. However, I have just been accepted in to an undergraduate for a Bachelor of Medical and Radiation Physics. I have not accepted it yet because i need advice. It sounds scary. Is it as scary as it sounds? Do I need any prior knowledge going in? And what career does one endeavor upon completion?

    Has anybody done Medical Physics? Is it an exciting career?

    Thanks in advance guys.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2011 #2
    A possible career apart from research is working in a hospital with dosimetry (checking the radiation dose somebody got. You can determine how much radiation someone needs for treatment. You can work on medical imaging.
  4. Jun 27, 2011 #3


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    Medical physics can be an exciting career - depending of course on what excites you.

    Medical physics in its broadest sense is the application of physics to medicine. On a practical level its most often concerned with the science behind radiation therapy and/or medical imaging. It's also a profession in the way medicine, law or engineering is a profession. Clinical physicists work in hospitals and are often called on to solve a wide variety of problems. Examples of these might be:
    - You've introduced a new imaging modality into cancer treatment that adds a small amount of radiation to each patient on top of their therapeutic dose of radition. How much is safe? Do the benefits of the imaging process outweigh the risks associated with the elevated dose?
    - You want to increase the rate at which you deliver radiation to your patients. What consequences will this have for things like inducing secondary cancers, or additional dose to the treatment staff?
    - There is a small amount of evidence that neutrons can disrupt the function of pacemakers. The physicians need to know the risk to patients irradiated from high energy photon beams.
    - Your treatment planning system does not account for the carbon-fibre couch your patient is lying on. Under what conditions should you adjust its predictions and by how much for the amount of radiation it needs to deliver?

    As a medical physicist you are first and foremost a physicist. So you will need a background in physics. Sometimes I'm a little weary of specialized undergraduate "medical physics" programs, because in the past some of them have not given students adequate backgrounds in physics to get into the graduate programs that they need to enter the profession. They can however open up careers in dosimetry, or radition therapy which are very well paid and have much better hours than those of a medical physicist.

    As for background to get into a good undergraduate physics program, the prequisites are usually high school level physics, mathematics, chemisty and biology.
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2011
  5. Jun 27, 2011 #4
    A good resource would be the American Association of Physicists in Medicine website (www.aapm.org).

    I am a practicing clinical medical physicist. Choppy did a good job giving some examples of the sorts of things a clinical physicist does. Your role in the workflow of patient care will differ depending on whether you pursue a career in diagnostic physics (dealing with medical imaging used for diagnosing disease), therapeutic physics (dealing with equipment and techniques for treating disease) or nuclear medicine physics (can be used for either).

    Personally, I am a therapy physicist and can offer some perspective on the role of a therapy physicist in a radiation oncology department. Typically the physicist is considered to be the technical expert for essentially everything in the department. This includes the radiation-producing equipment and their safe operating conditions as well as procedural issues and how they relate to patient safety. Really you should think of the physicist as the person responsible for ensuring the safety of everyone involved in patient care.

    The physician prescribes a course of therapy to a patient and as the physicist it is your responsibility to make sure that each patient is treated correctly and that both the patient and staff are safe.

    You will need to be knowledgeable about the safe operation of complicated equipment such as linear accelerators and computed tomography scanners. You will need to understand the inner workings of complex computer systems and algorithms which deal with radiation transport and radiation dose calculation. You will need to be somewhat good with your hands and a bit imaginative in case you are asked to build custom equipment for patients with special needs. You will need to be able to think and respond to problems under working conditions that are sometimes stressful and rushed. You will need to have good bedside manner and be empathetic with patients for those times when you are involved in their education or involved with their treatment in a more hands-on way.

    You will have to often work long hours including occasional weekends and you will probably not get recognition from most people for those cases where you go above and beyond to keep the department running (after all, most everyone else will show up after you do in the morning and leave before you do at night...they don't know what you do after they leave). You might feel stretched quite thin at times.

    You will typically be the first person anyone in the department goes to when there is a problem or something to be answered that has a technical procedural basis. You will often be asked questions that you simply don't know the answer to but you will have to use your best judgment and past experiences to answer as best as possible and always with the patient's best interest at heart.

    You will need to be able to communicate clearly with medical professionals including doctors (radiologists, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, etc..) and other physicists, some holding Ph.D.'s and some holding M.S.'s. Other staff include nurses, therapists, dosimetrists, medical residents, medical students, therapy students, etc..

    Medical physics is not like other branches of physics. Medicine, especially radiation oncology, is very evidence based and as such you will find yourself doing the same things over and over and over again because those are the things which have proven to be effective. Of course the field is constantly evolving, but for the most part you will be doing the same quality assurance procedures every day, week, month, year...you will be checking treatment charts in much the same way every week and reviewing treatment plans that all look very similar after you've done it for a while. You will be filling out the same forms and going over the same paperwork time and time again.

    However, through all of this you must always be doing your work with a skeptical eye and always be looking for mistakes and problems. It is your job to catch them, fix them, and prevent them from happening again. There may be only one significant mistake in 500 treatment plans that you review and you better damn well be able to catch it.

    There are some distinct advantages to being a medical physicist should you pursue it. You will have a career you feel good about and that is secure. You can go home at night feeling good about the work that you did that day. The pay is very good (feel free to Google "AAPM Salary Survey") and you do have some degree of autonomy in your work. I would recommend shadowing a physicist for a while before deciding on pursuing it and making sure it is right for you.
  6. Jun 28, 2011 #5
    wow thanks that is quite informative.

    As a Medical Physicist are you able to travel and work almost like a locum or a consultant? Are you contracted?

    This is an undergraduate degree Bachelor of Medical and Radiation Physics. I have already ben accepted but part of the condition is I have to complete a Physics and Mathematics bridging course in to the program.

    What would you say is the best branch of Medical Physics? Nuclear Medicine? That sounds very specialised thus more money and less hours perhaps?

    I take it Medical Physics is far fetched from Medicine and Surgery then.

    I am concerned what a "good salary" means though. In America a good salary is a mediocre one in Australia. I could not really find anything on Salary beside 90-120k a year but that isnt so great for such an elitist career in Australia so maybe that was referring to USA? I highly doubt that is first year out as well.

    Will I have to do a Postgrad if I have a 3 year undergrad in Med Physics?

  7. Jun 28, 2011 #6


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  8. Jun 28, 2011 #7
    Regarding the "best branch" of medical physics, that is a highly subjective question. I chose therapeutic physics because it had the jobs. My brief experience with nuclear medicine physics made me pretty uninterested in pursuing it as I thought it was somewhat bland (again, just my opinion). Diagnostic physics can be very intellectually challenging and stimulating, especially from a research perspective, but I also think you lose a lot of human contact and patient contact in your day to day clinical work.

    If I were going back to school to pursue a Ph.D. (I currently have an M.S.) then I would study in diagnostic physics just because that is where I think the most interesting technologies are. I would probably come back to work as a therapeutic physicist, though, because I enjoy the day to day clinical work more.

    If I had to personally gauge pay differences I would say that therapy pays the highest and diagnostic and nuclear medicine pay slightly lower and are about equal to one another.

    Regarding the 90-120k figure you are quoting for American salaries, I would place that more as a starting salary. My first job as a clinical physicist, which I started less than a year ago, pays more than $120,000.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 30, 2011
  9. Jun 29, 2011 #8
    THANK YOU ALL! thats very helpful.

    I start my 6 month mathematics and science catch up in 2 weeks. I will be studying preliminary chemistry and 2Unit Mathematics. Unfortunately its almost impossible to find courses in physics anywhere so ill just have to wait until next year to complete the physics bridging course before my degree starts. Im so excited to learn something useful as opposed to English, text, writing, media and marketing BS! what a waste of my years oh well.
  10. Sep 26, 2011 #9
    I need some advice. I graduated last year from a non-CAMPEP program, took a few classes since then, managed to take the ABR Part 1 and pass. I only just now secured a position as a volunteer medical physicist part time 2 days a week. So far, the job hunt has been hell. I've had terrible luck with getting a job and beings I relocated after graduation, that just made it even harder. I'm married and in order to survive, one of us had to be the bread winner. Anyway, to make a long story short, they now want to hire me two days a week at a different facility, but still want to keep me as a volunteer 2 days a week at the other facility. My dilemma, they will only pay me for 2 days a week and want me to sign a contract. Anyone with experience, what would you recommend for an hourly starting salary? Any advice with regards to the volunteering/contract? I don't want to screw this up beings the job market is awful right now. I do have two years of part time experience from doing my clinicals at school. But now a year later, things are a bit hazy....its starting to come back bit by bit.
  11. Sep 26, 2011 #10


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    The pay is the easy question. Look up the latest AAPM salary survey and you should be able to get an idea of what's reasonable for someone with your experience and education level.

    The harder question is what to do about the volunteer position. You have to really look at what you're getting out of it. Are you helping out with research that will lead to publications? Are you gaining clinical experience commissioning a new accelerator? Or are they just happy to have an extra hand doing the same QA-type work that you already have experience at?

    Obviously, this volunteer work has led to a part-time job, so it has value, but you want to make sure that no one is taking advantage of you.
  12. Nov 17, 2011 #11
    OH I FEEL so sorry for medphysics - how could a skill probably the hardest degree after actuary studies be lacking jobs?

    UPDATE i am almost finished my first semester in physics - good lord the mathematics put me through hell. I was always on edge i had to give up the gym there was so much study and work involved i was always hungry it was basically a living hell. lol. I loved astronomy but there are no jobs in astro so i may steer clear of that. I kind of like maths; however im wondering after my first semester if its worth it??? I did not realise what a massive workload was involved in a science degree in physics!
  13. Nov 17, 2011 #12


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    The bad news is that the workload doesn't get any easier as you progress through undergrad. It's a good idea to explore fields you're interested in and not focus solely on what you believe to be employable (but always keep in mind what you may want to do when you're done).

    Once you get into graduate school, the workload becomes different. Some people say it's harder, others find it easier. The CAMPEP didactic coursework is generally not as intensive as other physics graduate work, but this depends on the program. I had to take graduate level E&M and quantum in addition to my medical physics courses. But really the instensity often comes from your research project and that can vary from project to project.
  14. Nov 28, 2011 #13
    hello everyone,
    I am highly interested in Medical Physics. Currently, I am an undergraduate senior majoring in Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Physics graduating in may 2012. Right now, I am applying to grad schools for PhD in medical physics. I was motivated to consider medical physics as a choice of my study because from what information i got from my professors and online sources it seems to apply all the knowledge i learnt in my undergrad career so far to solve a problem.

    But my problem is I am unable to choose between Radiation oncology and Diagnostic therapy ..could you please explain me the difference between those two?

    Also, I have started writing personal statements, and I was wondering do we really have to be very precise on what kind of research we are interested in for PhD? Additionally many people have told me that me having 3 degrees might put me into disadvantage if I don't explain the reason of doing so accurately in my personal statement. This is driving me insane! The only reason for me to do so was coz I was genuinely interested in all 3 and the reason of choosing medical physics as my grad study is coz it seems to apply everything i learnt to it.

    I would sincerely appreciate your help if you could help me get started.
  15. Nov 28, 2011 #14


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    Radiation oncology physics is the largest branch of medical physics. Clinically they are responsibile for making sure that the right amount of radiation gets into the places where the oncologists want it to go. This involves:
    - commissioning, calibrating and overseeing QA programs on linear accelerators or other treatment modalities (brachytherapy afterloaders, Co-60 units,...)
    - administration and oversight of the treatment planning software
    - helping out with problem treatment plans
    - investigation of clinical problems (How much does your new immobilization device attenuate a treatment field? What's the best combination of kV and mAs on your new cone beam imaging unit? How much radiation is going into a patient's pacemaker and does it present a risk of malfunction? What are the consequences of delivering the radiation at a higher dose rate?)
    - radiation safety

    Diagnostic imaging (not therapy) is the branch that provides physics support for the various imaging modalities such as CT, ultrasound, PET, SPECT, MRI (although MRI tends to be its own specialty). Clinically it involves a lot of commissioning and QA work, ensuring that you can objectively prove that these machines are capable of seeing what they are supposed to be seeing.

    There is a lot of overlap between the branches. Linear accelerators now come equiped with cone beam CT imaging capabilities, which the therapy physicist works with on a regular basis.

    The good news is that you don't have to decide on this before you get into graduate school. Your graduate program should give you enough background that you can pick whichever branch you want to go into.

    No. It's important that you know about the field itself, at least to the level of an undergraduate. It's also important that you look into the program(s) that you're interested in. It helps to learn as much as you can about the research that's currently going on there. It's not reasonable to expect you to propose a specific project before you've completed your coursework.

    Three undergraduate degrees does seem a little odd to me. And to be clear, you're not talking a triple major where you've essentially completed the requirements for three seperate-but-related majors over a period of 4-5 years?
    Either way, I wouldn't worry about it too much. You can't change it. And you've been productive in appropriate fields. It's not like you've just been sitting on your thumbs.
  16. Nov 28, 2011 #15
    Hello Choppy,

    yes I am talking about a triple major where I have completed the requirements for three seperate-but-related majors over a period of 5 years.

    And thank you so much for your response. It has helped me a lot and has given me a good idea and basis to start off my personal statement. :)
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