Medical Physicist

The Job and What's Involved

Medical physicists apply the principles of physics to diagnose, treat and prevent human disease.

Medical physics is concerned with:

  • Equipment that forms images of the body, which is used in radiography, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging. This equipment helps medical staff to diagnose disease and injury, and to guide treatment.
  • Equipment that is used to treat patients - for example in radiotherapy, where radiation is used to treat some cancers, or lasers that are used to treat eye disorders, fragment kidney stones, and for other purposes.
  • A range of electronic equipment to make physiological measurements of naturally occurring processes within the body. Physiological measurement is used in audiology, cardiology, neurophysiology, respiratory function, urodynamics, bone densitometry and vascular assessment.

The work of individual medical physicists can vary widely and includes:

  • Researching, designing and developing new equipment to aid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Working in a team to plan treatment (such as radiotherapy or laser treatment), that involves using equipment.
  • Setting up new equipment, testing it, and preparing it for operation.
  • Monitoring existing equipment.
  • Applying computing and mathematical modeling to clinical problems.
  • Advising medical staff on the results of patient tests.
  • Having patient contact in some areas of work, e.g. when explaining procedures to patients.
  • Providing radiation protection advice and services in the hospital for staff and patients, as well as protecting the environment.
  • Selecting and maintaining a wide range of medical equipment across the whole hospital.
  • Training medical and non-scientific staff to use equipment.
  • Teaching new medical physicists.

Medical physicists often work as part of a multidisciplinary team with other clinical scientists, clinicians and technologists.

Medical physicists in the NHS usually work 37 hours a week, from Monday to Friday. In some specialties there are opportunities for part-time work and flexible working. In certain specialties, on-call, evening, or weekend work is sometimes necessary.

Most medical physicists work in hospitals, including clinics, laboratories and on wards. Others work solely in laboratories and workshops.

Medical physicists working with patients usually wear a white coat.

All jobs involve some travel to attend meetings and conferences.

Starting salaries for staff working in medical physics in the National Health Service (NHS) may be between £19,100 and £24,800 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are over 1,500 medical physicists in the UK, and numbers are increasing. Most work in the NHS. Others work for private hospitals, medical equipment manufacturers, research organisations and government agencies.

Job vacancies are advertised in the national press, in scientific journals such as New Scientist and the British Medical Journal, and through a fortnightly placement service circular issued by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM). In England and Wales, the NHS has a central recruitment centre for clinical scientist trainees, including medical physicists. Vacancies also appear on the NHS jobs website, www.jobs.nhs.uk.

Entry to training posts is highly competitive. It is an advantage to have relevant paid or voluntary work experience in a hospital medical physics department.

Education and Training

Entry to this work is with a first or upper second class degree in a physical science or engineering subject, such as physics, electrical engineering, electronic engineering, computer science or computer engineering.

Entry to degree courses is with at least two A levels, plus five GCSE's (A-C), including English and maths, or equivalent qualifications. In practice, three A levels may be required. It is almost essential for medical physicists to have physics and maths at A level, or equivalent qualifications.

Some people enter with a postgraduate degree - either an MSc or PhD. Entry to these courses is with a good first degree.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

A first position as a medical physicist in the NHS is usually as a clinical scientist trainee. Initial training, which lasts for two to three years, involves:

  • Several hospital placements.
  • Study for an MSc in medical physics, accredited by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM), either through a full-time course or on day or block release.

Trainees who enter with an accredited MSc do a shortened programme of hospital training.

In the NHS, initial training is followed by two years of supervised practice. Medical physicists then apply for registration with the Health Professions Council as clinical scientists.

After registration, medical physicists follow a programme of higher specialist training to develop their skills.

The IPEM is keen to encourage people who take a PhD immediately after graduation to enter the profession. They may be able to gain exemption from part of the training programme.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Medical physicists should:

  • Have a high level of ability in physical sciences.
  • Have ability with IT.
  • Have enquiring minds and the ability to lead research and development work.
  • Be able to cope with high levels of responsibility, as patients' lives or safety may depend on their decisions and advice.
  • Have a professional approach to their work, and high ethical standards.
  • Be capable of working in and leading a team of professionals.
  • Have excellent communication skills, both verbal and written.
  • Be able to put patients at their ease if their job involves patient contact.
  • Be capable of working accurately and to pay attention to detail.
  • Be able to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • Have good problem-solving skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

There are many opportunities for further training and career development. For example, it is possible to gain a PhD, or to qualify as a chartered scientist, while working as a medical physicist.

Medical physicists may move into work outside the NHS, or go into academic life. It is common to move between employers to progress.

A small but growing proportion of medical physicists reach consultant status (equivalent to a medical consultant). This usually involves managing a scientific department or a major departmental section.

There may be opportunities to work abroad.

Get Further Information

Health Professions Council, Park House,
184 Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4BU
Tel: 020 7582 0866
Website: www.hpc-uk.org

Working in the NHS:

England: NHS Careers. PO Box 2311,
Bristol BS2 2ZX
Tel:0845 606 0655
Website: www.nhscareers.nhs.uk

Scotland: Careers and Opportunities in the NHS
Tel: 0845 601 4647
Website: www.nhscareers.scot.nhs.uk

NHS Wales:
Website: www.wales.nhs.uk

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