What do Medical Physicists Do?

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.

Medical Physics



Medical Physics

Medical Physics is a branch of Applied Physics, pursued by medical physicists, that uses physics principles, methods and techniques in practice and research for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human diseases with a specific goal of improving human health and well-being. Medical physics may further be classified into a number of sub-fields (specialties), including Radiation Oncology Physics, Medical Imaging Physics, Nuclear Medicine Physics, Medical Health Physics (Radiation Protection in Medicine), Non-ionizing Medical Radiation Physics, and Physiological Measurement. It is also closely linked to neighbouring sciences such as Biophysics, Biological Physics, and Health Physics.

Many medical physicists are heavily involved with responsibilities in areas of diagnosis and treatment, often with specific patients. These activities take the form of consultations with physician colleagues. 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. An indispensable service is the accurate measurement of the radiation output from radiation sources employed in cancer therapy. In the specialty of nuclear medicine, physicists collaborate with physicians in procedures utilizing radionuclides for delineating internal organs and determining important physiological variables, such as metabolic rates and blood flow. Other important services are rendered through investigation of equipment perfor­mance, organization of quality control in imaging systems, design of radiation installations, and control of radiation hazards. The medical physicist is called upon to contribute clinical and scientific advice and resources to solve the numerous and diverse physical problems that arise continually in many specialized medical areas.

Role and Responsibilities

Medical physicists are involved with the application of medical physics principles and techniques for prevention, treatment and diagnosis of human disorders, illnesses and disabilities, and the protection of the patients, staff and members of the public from ionizing and non-ionizing radiation hazards. The role and responsibilities of medical physicists may be oriented toward clinical service (which includes technical and radiation safety aspects), management, education, and research and development. More information on role and responsibilities of medical physicists is given in IOMP Policy Statement No. 1.

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. In cancer, they work primarily on issues involving radiation, such as the basic mechanisms of biological change after irradiation, the application of new high-energy machines to patient treatment, and the development of new techniques for precise measurement of radiation. Significant computer developments continue in the area of dose calculation for patient treatment and video display of this treatment information. Particle irradiation is an area of active research with promising biological advantages over traditional photon treatment. In heart disease, physicists work on the measurement of blood flow and oxygenation. In mental illness, they work on the recording, correlation, and interpretation of bioelectric potentials. Medical physicists are also concerned with research of general medical significance, including the applications of digital computers in medicine and applications of information theory to diagnostic problems; processing, storing, and retrieving medical images; measuring the amount of radioactivity in the human body and foodstuffs; and studying the anatomical and temporal distribution of radioactive substances in the body. Medical physicists are also involved in the development of new instrumentation and technology for use in diagnostic radiology. These include the use of magnetic and electro-optical storage devices for the manipulation of x-ray images, quantitative analysis of both static and dynamic images using digital computer techniques, radiation methods for the analysis of tissue characteristics and composition, and the exciting new areas of computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging for displaying detailed cross-sectional images of the anatomy. Medical physicists are also engaged in research and development on imaging procedures utilizing infrared and ultrasound sources.

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Other societies

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