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Medicine, Medical Sciences & Research

Medical Physicist

Job Description

The diagnosis, treatment and prevention of human diseases relies heavily on the medical equipment, critical apparatuses and procedures used. It is a medical physicist’s responsibility to design, develop, test and assess these factors, using specialist knowledge of physics and other technical disciplines.

The largest employer of medical physicists is the NHS. They are also employed by manufacturers of healthcare equipment, as well as academic institutions, research and development laboratories, regulatory bodies and organisations handling and using nuclear energy or radioactive material. The scope of work done by medical physicists includes laser technology, nuclear medicine, physiological monitoring and radiotherapy.

On a daily basis, medical physicists educate patients and other medical professionals about technical procedures, demonstrating the utility of laser, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), ultrasound, ultraviolet and X-ray equipment in detecting changes in the body and interpreting them.

Their work involves meeting with patients, liaising with attending physicians in preparing detailed patient records, and keeping a close eye on all equipment and systems to ensure accurate performance and output. Needless to say, they have to keep on top of any new developments in the field.

It is, after all, a collaborative profession: physicists are constantly training technicians and other medical personnel in the use of new procedures, and they are called upon to resolve technical and software issues when malfunctions and problems occur.

Salary & benefits

Medical physicists employed within the NHS receive salaries according to band-specific scales. Private sector salary packages are usually higher. Trainees in the NHS earn salaries starting at around £25,000, raising periodically with the relevant training. A senior principal consultant scientist can fetch a pretty handsome annual salary of between £75,000 and £100,000.

Working hours

In non-NHS establishments such as universities and regulatory authorities, medical physicists have a regular nine-to-five and five day week schedule.

Those employed by NHS or private healthcare facilities, nuclear energy plants or enterprises handling radioactive material usually work on a rotational shift system, involving late hours and weekend and holiday shifts.

Medical physicists work across several departments, laboratories and other specialty units in the course of their daily activities. This may also include visiting facilities in different locations, both within and outside of their main base.

Private sector employees, research and development specialists and academic scholars travel extensively across the country and even overseas in the course of regular work or attending conferences, or when collaborating with experts and other professionals across the globe.

Entry

Candidates with a graduate or higher degree in physics are usually preferred for this role, but those with technology-related degrees such as computer engineering, electrical and electronic engineering and other similar subjects with a significant focus on analytical and quantitative reasoning can also apply.

A genuine interest in medicine and healthcare functions, demonstrated through work experience and vacation placements in a healthcare facility, provides an added advantage over other applicants.

Training & progression

Trainees undertake a two-year training programme in a hospital or medical facility, involving completion of the first part of their IPEM (Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine) qualifications and an MSc in Medical Physics. The latter consists of formal and practical training in clinical, management, scientific and technical disciplines, completing a dissertation and project-based work, and structured internships in three selected specialty disciplines.

Trainees complete a final assessment exercise in their chosen specialties and receive the DipIPEM qualification. The next phase includes taking up a junior physicist’s job and completion of Part II training over a period of two years under the supervision of a qualified medical physicist.

Successful completion of the programme allows medical physicists to obtain membership of the IPEM and a Certificate of Attainment from the Association of Clinical Scientists (ACS), which is required to fulfil registration requirements mandated by the HPC (Health and Care Professions Council) and to practise as a full-time medical physicist.

Career progression can be aided by contributions on thought leadership via peer-reviewed and trade journals, management and leadership training.