What is Medical Physics?
Medical physics in its simplest definition is the application and study of physics in medicine. Certified medical physicists often work with medical imaging, radiation therapy/ diagnosis, and nuclear medicine. While most focus on cancer-related topics, medical physicists work in many other disciplines of medicine including those concerned with heart disease and mental illness.
According to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), “medical physicists are concerned with three areas of activity: clinical service and consultation, research and development, and teaching. On the average their time is distributed equally among these three areas.” For example, in clinical work, medical physicists use sophisticated software and calculations to plan precise radiation treatment for patients with cancer.
Most medical physicists specialize in various forms of therapy and diagnosis of cancer. However, there are many areas of specialization; some of these are described in the Career section.Important Topics and Issues
Medical physicists often find themselves working with cancer therapies. With cancer rates rising, medical physicists are expected to find an increased demand for their services. This can be an exciting field for those who are interested in helping others while using and developing advanced, progressive technology. This career is a great opportunity for students with a background in physics to apply their knowledge in a new and innovative way.
What are my career options in this field?According to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), medical physicists will divide their time, often equally, between three areas: clinical service and consultation; research and development; and teaching. For this reason, a career in medical physics can satisfy a student’s need for practical application (clinical service) and theory (research and development) while also giving those who love to share their passion an opportunity to teach!Clinical Service and Consultation
In hospitals and clinical settings, medical physicists play a vital role in diagnosis and treatment of patients and they often work closely with physician colleagues in patient care. In cancer-based work and research, medical physicists usually work with applications of radiation and radionuclides. The AAPM notes: “In radiation oncology departments, one important example is the planning of radiation treatments for cancer patients, using either external radiation beams or internal radioactive sources.”Research and Development
According to AAPM, “Medical physicists play a vital and often leading role on the medical research team. Their activities cover wide frontiers, including such key areas as cancer, heart disease, and mental illness.” Once again, medical physicists working with cancer will often focus on issues involving radiation. These include the effect of radiation on biological mechanisms, the application of new equipment and software, and the development of new radiation-measurement techniques with great precision and accuracy. Medical physicists can also conduct research concerning other areas of medicine that involve various forms of equipment, software, and measurement/imaging techniques.Teaching
Since medical physicists have a wealth of specialized knowledge and skills, they often find themselves teaching and training others in the field. For example, AAPM reports “Often medical physicists have faculty appointments at universities and colleges, where they help train future medical physicists, resident physicians, medical students, and technologists who operate the various types of equipment used to perform diagnosis and treatment.”
For detailed information on careers in this field, go to the Careers Tab.
Also, for a more detailed look at the information source, see the following link:
Is this field for me?Academic Strengths
Students pursuing a career in medical physics should have a strong aptitude for math and science since they will obtain a bachelor’s degree in physics. It is important for students to be dedicated to their studies because the medical physics program involves full semester schedules.
Personal Qualities To succeed in this career, an individual should have a strong work ethic, self-motivation, and an interest in science and medicine. Individuals in this field also usually enjoy at least one of the following areas of work: clinical work, research, or teaching.
This can be a very rewarding career for those who are compassionate and wish to help others. Clinical work, especially, provides the opportunity to treat patients with cancer and other pathological illnesses, as well as develop and research new methods to combat illness.
There is both reward and responsibility when working with patients in need. The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) has taken great care to outline a code of ethics by which all medical physicists should practice. Those interested in medical physics should be dedicated to such a code of ethics.
Job Market It is expected that the demand for medical physicists will rise in the future. Therefore, a career in this field can be promising for individuals who are dedicated to it. Medical physicists can find employment in hospitals, clinics, private practices, universities, and training programs.
For more information about job opportunities, go to the Careers Tab.
How do I prepare for a career in this field?
High School – While in high school students should take math and science classes. Students must be comfortable taking calculus in their first semester of college; it is preferable that students prepare by completing a calculus class in high school. For students who wish to gain hands-on experience, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities in the field of medicine or science is a great choice.
College – While in college, students will need to take specific courses as well as gain hands-on experience. The Medical Physics program at URI provides students with both the necessary courses and training in the field.
For more detailed information about the courses available in this field, go to the Curriculum Tab For more detailed information about experiential learning in this field, go to the Experiential Learning Tab
Graduate School – While in their last few years of study, students will need to obtain a master’s degree in medical physics. This program is designed so that students will complete their graduate degree at the same time they finish their bachelor’s degree. Students will then apply to residency programs at accredited hospitals.
For more information about the graduate requirements in this program, go to the Graduate Studies Tab
What will I know and be able to do when I graduate?
Students enrolled in the Medical Physics program will obtain a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in medical physics. While obtaining the bachelor’s degree, students will learn the fundamental principles of physics including elementary physics, modern physics, mechanics, computational physics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, solid state physics, and quantum mechanics.
In their last few years of study, students will focus on biophysics and medical physics courses that include topics such as modern biological physics, radiation physics and dosimetry, radiobiology, radiation oncology, methods in condense matter physics, and nanotechnology imaging in therapy. This program also requires students to gain supplemental knowledge in chemistry, biology, and electrical engineering. All courses will provide students will the necessary academic training to become a medical physicist. Students will also gain hands-on experience through laboratories and independent research topics.
Upon graduation, students will be able to enter accredited residency programs at various hospitals to become certified medical physicists. Graduates of the program can also choose to further their education by applying to Ph.D. programs in medical physics or related fields. This program can also be a great preparation for medical school if students are interested.
Where can I find more information?
For more detailed information concerning various aspects of medical physics, see the following links:
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM)
This is the leading organization of medical physicists in America. Its Website has many resources concerning medical physics for prospective students and certified medical physicists.
Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs, Inc. (CAMPEP)
This organization promotes consistent quality education of medical physicists by evaluating and accrediting schools and programs. Its Website provides information on accredited medical physics schools.
Medical Physics Web
“Latest news, analysis and research in medical physics.” This is a great source for those interested in current events in the world of medical physics.
Who can I contact for more information?
Dr. Yana K. Reshetnyak
Title: Professor, Co-Director of Medical Physics Program,
Department of Physics, University of Rhode Island
Department of Radiation Oncology, Rhode Island Hospital, Warren Alpert Brown Medical School
Office: East Hall, Kingston RI 02881