What medical physicists do

Being a medical physicist is a diverse and rewarding career, in which you contribute specialist scientific and technical expertise and skills to a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals.

The responsibilities of a medical physicist typically include a mixture of clinical service and consultation, research and development, and teaching.

Clinical service

One of the main duties of a medical physicist within the NHS is to contribute to the diagnosis and treatment of individual patients as part of a multi-disciplinary team.

In radiotherapy departments physicists have a central role in planning individual patients’ radiation treatment using either external radiation beams or internally placed radioactive sources.

Physicists also have a role to play in diagnostics. For example, they might analyse nuclear medical image data to determine important physiological variables, such as metabolic rates or blood flow.

Clinical consultation

Physicists provide an essential radiation protection and radiation safety service, providing scientific and technical consultancy on the design of radiation facilities and the safe handling, storage and disposal of radioactive materials.

Similar consultancy services are provided for the specification, procurement and acceptance testing of complex and expensive medical equipment including radiotherapy linear accelerators and imaging equipment such as X-ray CT scanners and MRI scanners.

Another important clinical duty of the medical physicist is to design and manage quality assurance and preventative maintenance programmes (often in close collaboration with manufacturers) to ensure that equipment remains safe and accurate.

Finally, the specialist clinical scientific and technical knowledge of the physicist is frequently called upon to diagnose faults and problems that arise with such specialised and complex equipment.

Research and development

Medical physicists are involved at the frontiers of research at all levels:

  • basic, theoretical studies into new physical concepts that might be used for diagnosis and treatment
  • development and testing of equipment
  • the conduct of clinical trials of new imaging and treatment techniques.

Medical research work is almost always highly collaborative and multi-disciplinary. Collaborations typically involve basic scientists in universities, equipment manufactures and a range of different medical professionals, including radiographers, radiologists and radiation oncologists.

The recent rapid technical developments in equipment used in medical imaging and therapy mean that there is always a need for applied research and development work within hospitals. Finding the optimum way to use new equipment and designing practical and robust methods for implementing technology in a busy clinical workplace are challenges that face most medical physicists are some stage.

Teaching

Teaching, both on formal courses in collaboration with universities or through workplace-based schemes, is another key element the job. Further details of UK medical physics training schemes and entry requirements can be found on the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) website.