Medical Physicists are responsible for applying physics and technology in order to research, develop, maintain and operate technical instruments, equipment, techniques, procedures and treatment programmes used in the field of medicine.
Medical Physicists collaborate with doctors and other medical professionals to apply physical science and technology for the benefit of patients. They research, develop and maintain specialist equipment and instruments that can be used for diagnosis, medical interventions and treatment programmes.
Medical Physicists usually have a grounding in physics or (less commonly) in engineering whilst also having a sound knowledge of mathematics and computer science. Medical Physicists work towards a broad range of medical needs, but there is a particular relationship between the fields of medical physics, radiology, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine.
Research into new techniques or equipment forms a large part of the job. Medical Physicists are also responsible for developing protocol in relation to technical procedures and equipment and for delivering training to other medical professionals.
Trainee medical physicists in the NHS (the biggest employer of Medical Physicists) typically start on a salary of around £24,000 rising to anything up to £38,000 once training is complete. Senior medical physicists with several years of experience can earn anything up to £77,000 with consultants in the field earning £73,000 – £93,000.
- Developing techniques to look inside the body such as ultrasound scanning, gamma cameras, MRI, laser and X-Ray systems
- Carrying out technical procedures that form part of a patient’s diagnosis, treatment or care
- Maintaining the quality and performance of specialist instruments and equipment such as CT scanners
- Explaining treatment procedures and possible side-effects to patients
- Supervising the planning and administration of radiation treatment for patients, particularly those with cancer
- Monitoring the dosage of radiation and its uptake in the body’s organs (a practice known as dosimetry)
- Working with other team members (not just Medical Physicists) to plan treatment programmes for patients
- Providing on-call advice and technical assistance in a hospital
- Ensuring protection against radiation for staff, patients and the general public
- Researching new technologies/ equipment/ techniques
- Advising on the purchase of new equipment according to the latest developments in the field
- Producing reports to aid with changes in treatment, diagnostic practice or technical equipment
- Processing and analysing imaging data
- Commissioning new or upgraded equipment to improve the efficiency of treatment or medical procedures
- Reporting technical results to doctors and adding them to patient records
- Delivering technical training to medical staff including doctors, nurses and radiographers
- Presenting new research work at conferences/ professional training events
- Producing/ updating policies for protocol relating to the use/ handling of equipment
- Testing equipment, hardware or software and attending to problems as they arise
- Undertaking regular equipment checks and health and safety audits
- A sound knowledge of Physics
- A scientific/ methodical approach
- Care and compassion towards patients
- Commitment to achieving results regardless of the time/ work it takes
- Sensitivity to patient needs
- The ability to concentrate for long periods of time
- Excellent research skills
- An enquiring mind
- The ability to solve problems as they arise
- The ability to work well under pressure
- The ability to work to deadline
- The ability to explain complex procedures and equipment to patients and medical staff
- An enthusiasm for the job
- The ability to manage conflicting priorities
- Patience when working with staff who might not have a technical understanding
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal
- Managerial/ leadership abilities (particularly in more senior roles)
The recommended route for a Medical Physicist is to undertake an honours degree in Physical Science. In theory a degree in engineering is also a possible entry point, but given the competition for training positions preference tends to be given to those with a background in physics. Physics/ engineering graduates are eligible to apply for a two-year training programme in Medical Physics, accredited by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine The programme includes on-the-job training coupled with study for an MSc in Medical Physics. Following the two year training programme Medical Physicists must then complete two years of supervised practice, also accredited by the IPEM. On successful completion they are then eligible to register as a fully qualified professional with the Health Professions Council
Some Medical Physicists choose to do an MSc or PhD in a relevant subject area before embarking on training which can sometimes reduce the training time slightly.
Places on accredited Medical Physics training programmes are highly competitive so finding some relevant work experience is advisable before applying for trainee positions. Many hospitals will offer the opportunity to visit or shadow a Medical Physicist for a short time which is a useful way to get real-life insight into the role. Work experience in any medical/ science capacity will be an advantage as will demonstrable experience of working with computer software/ hardware or other technical equipment.
As Medical Physicists spend a significant time working with patients and other healthcare professionals they need to be able to demonstrate a caring approach and good people skills as well as a knowledge of the subject. For this reason it may also be an advantage to gain some work experience working in a people-focused/ caring capacity.
The NHS is the biggest employer of Medical Physicists and there are also many job opportunities in private hospitals. Less common, but still significant employers in the field are universities, medical equipment manufacturing companies, government agencies, research-based organisations and companies that deal with radioactive material.
Medical Physicists usually work typical office hours, Monday – Friday, 9 – 5 pm although at particular times overtime may be required, such as when patients require constant monitoring, when new equipment is being tested or major problems arise, or in order to present/ attend training events or conferences. Job-share or part-time working is usually available. The job is largely office or lab-based although at particular times Medical Physicists are required to monitor equipment or treatment in theatre or on hospital wards.
The role of a Medical Physicist can be stressful, particularly when there are problems with technical equipment. There is often high pressure on senior employees to make decisions about treatment or patient care within a very short space of time. Working with patients who are going through difficult treatment programmes (such as radiotherapy) can also be stressful.
As Medical Physicists progress they will usually undertake further training with the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine. This will allow them to take on more in-depth research, to become a specialist in a particular area of Medical Physics such as anaesthesia or urology or to take on managerial/ training responsibilities. Some Medical Physics may choose to undertake a PhD, either by taking time out to study full-time or alongside the job in a part-time capacity, in order to further develop a specialist area of research/ knowledge.
Also known as…
- Clinical Scientist
- Physical Scientist
- Cancer Clinician
- Clinical Engineer
- Research Scientist
- Clinical/ medical technologist
What’s it really like?
Gareth Iball is 33 years old and has been practicing as a Medical Physicist at Leeds General Infirmary for eleven years. He gives us the inside story.
I completed a degree in Physical Science at Newcastle University and then spent a year doing various part-time jobs in Doncaster before I got a Medical Physics training post with the Leeds Teaching Hospital’s NHS Trust through the IPEM’s national training scheme. The training scheme was based within the Medical Physics Department at Leeds General Infirmary where I have been ever since!
A typical day as a Medical Physicist can be quite varied. Most Medical Physicists specialise in a particular area of work and my main role is in the quality assurance of X-Ray systems, specifically CT (computerised tomography) scanners. I spend a lot of time testing the hospital’s CT scanners and then analysing and reporting on the data. I also do a lot of work in radiation protection, making sure that patients, staff and the public are not exposed to too much radiation. In 2009 I was selected to be a Yorkshire Enterprise Fellow which gave me the opportunity to spend time developing a special new shielding device for use during CT scans, which is now a commercially available product. This was a very exciting process to be involved in.
I also get involved with some research studies and have just taken on a new role for one day per week providing scientific support to a new imaging technique in Leeds. The job also gives the opportunity to attend and present research findings at conferences relating to the field – earlier in the year I even attended a conference in the US to talk about the radiation protection device that I had helped develop, which was a great perk!
I really like the variety the job brings, especially now that I am involved in research alongside my main role. The department has a really great team of people which makes it an enjoyable environment to work in most of the time. I also enjoy the process of problem solving and finally arriving at a solution after hours, days, weeks or sometimes even months of work! The things I like least are the general difficulties that exist within the NHS such as financial constraints that make it hard to do the job well.
There are good possibilities for career progression as a Medical Physicist – the next step on the ladder for me will be further research work or more managerial responsibility. I am already responsible for managing a student in the department, which I really enjoy.
To anyone wanting to do this job I would advise that they get some work experience if possible – preferably in a Medical Physics Department of a hospital – and then go for it! The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) is also a useful body to contact for further information.