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
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
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.