Medical physics is the application of physics concepts and principles to healthcare and medicine. It has led to the development of several medical devices, such as physiological monitors and ultrasound scanners. As such, medical physicists use their knowledge and skills to develop medical equipment and treatment procedures used by healthcare practitioners to diagnose and treat various diseases. If you have an interest in science and would like to work in the healthcare field, this might be the career for you.
The main duty of medical physicists is to develop and improve a wide range of medical technologies, including medical imaging, radiation and radiotherapy, laser technology and medical electronics. Other duties include:
- Creating and inspecting new equipment and technologies to be used in treatment
- Teaching hospital staff how to use new equipment safely and effectively
- Overseeing medical procedures and experiments to ensure they are done accurately and safely
- Planning treatment programs and explaining them to patients before they are administered
- Researching on ways to improve existing treatment procedures and equipment
Although medical physicists usually work 37.5 hours a week, they may be required to work part time and weekends depending on the specific roles they play. Since these physicists are normally based in clinics, hospitals and testing laboratories, they often wear protective clothing to prevent exposure to radiations and other hazardous substances.
The National Health Service’s agenda for change pay system is used to fix salaries and allowances for medical physicists working in the public health sector. Registered medical physicists start at band 6 and work their way up to band 8, as shown below:
Band 6 (State-registered physicist)
Band 7 (Team managers)
Band 8 (Healthcare consultants)
Source: National Careers Service
To become a medical physicist, you must complete the following steps in order:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in physics – To secure an admission into an undergraduate program, you will need five GCSEs at grades A to C and three A levels, including physics and math.
- Complete a three-year NHS Healthcare Scientist Training Program – This is a work-based training qualification that leads to a graduate qualification in your specialty
- Obtain the Academy for Healthcare Science Certificate of Attainment or an AHCS Certificate of Equivalence
- You can then proceed to register yourself with the Health and Care Professions Council and find employment as a medical physicist.
Due to the high competition for places in the STP, it’s important to have some work experience in physics or engineering to boost your chances. You can volunteer in hospitals or engineering departments in colleges.
Important Skills and Abilities
Apart from the experience and knowledge attained in training, medical physicists also need the following skills and abilities:
- A strong interest in physics, medicine and healthcare
- A high level of accuracy and attention to detail
- Ability to work and concentrate for long periods as some treatment procedures are lengthy
- Ability to think quickly and accurately and the confidence to take responsibility for decisions
- Teamwork and good communication skills.
Training and Development
To fast track your movement from trainee positions to band 8, you can:
- Join professional bodies, such as Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine – IPEM may help you attain the requirements needed by HCPC for re-registration after every two years, as well as provide professional development activities
- Pursue the NHS Higher Specialist Scientific Training Program
- Pursue a doctoral degree in medical physics.
Although the NHS is the main employer of medical physicists, you can also find employment opportunities in:
- Private health care facilities
- Research and development firms
- Colleges and universities
With vast experience and advanced qualifications, you could be mandated to head a team of medical physicists. You can also move into self-employment by establishing a healthcare consulting business.
Finally, the National Careers Service expects the UK’s economy to create about 175,000 jobs for science and engineering professionals between 2014 and 2020. This means aspiring medical physicists have strong employment prospects.
So if you have the necessary drive and attributes then this may indeed be the right career choice for you.