Since 1999, Mission Search has helped healthcare organizations specializing in cancer research and treatment with a shared goal: to provide excellence in patient care while we move towards a cure. In our second installment of our Radiation Oncology Series, we take a deeper dive into the life of a medical physicist, their expertise, and how innovations in treatments have transformed the landscape of radiation therapy.
What is a Medical Physicist?
Medical physicists provide critically important expertise by way of using analytics and applied scientific techniques in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients. Through a deep understanding of physics, biology, and medicine, medical physicists provide expertise in the safe diagnosis and treatment of a cancer patient receiving radiation therapy.
More specifically, medical physicists prepare treatment machines, such as linear accelerators and HDR brachytherapy units, through careful calibration and quality checks. Along with CTs and other imaging equipment like MRI and PET/CT, medical physicists measure and model how radiation interacts with the tissues in the body. With the goal of targeting cancer cells with a large dose of radiation, this analysis forms the basis of a radiation therapy plan for a patient undergoing treatment.
Medical physicists are also involved in the careful measurement of a patient’s results to calculate, validate, and ensure accuracy within any patient’s treatment planning. It is a professional career that requires compassion, a dedication to ensuring excellent patient care, as well as an immense sense of responsibility.
While medical physicists are often seen as those who “work behind the scenes,” it can be incredibly reassuring to a patient to know that a qualified team of scientists is always behind their treatment planning to ensure the best outcomes possible.
Requirements for Medical Physicists
In order to become a medical physicist, it requires a degree in physics, engineering, radiation biology or related field, then followed by a Master’s or Ph.D. in Medical Physics. In the United States, they must follow their education with a two-year residency in an accredited program. They will seek board certification from the American Board of Radiology. The board also certifies radiation oncologists and is maintained on an ongoing basis. Treating patients by administering radiation to them is a profession that requires a huge amount of responsibility; ongoing education ensures that each patient receives the highest level of medical care possible.
The American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM)
One of the singularly most important resources for medical physicists is the AAPM, an organization dedicated to improving health through medical science and physics. Founded in 1958 with more than 8,000 scientists, its primary goal is the identification and implementation of improvements in patient safety for the medical use of radiation in imaging and radiation therapy. The AAPM provides state-of-the-art guidance and thought leadership on the latest shifts in technology and how they can be improved to deliver accurate and safe treatments to its patients.
Perhaps one of the most exciting innovations published by the AAPM this year was their advanced best practices for patient safety in X-ray imaging. Traditionally, this has involved the routine fetal and gonadal shielding with lead shields. While this may come as a surprise to anyone who has received an X-ray, the AAPM is leading the way in helping professionals in cancer hospitals across the nation to adopt these new best practices that ensure safe and higher-quality X-ray exams. Innovations in shielding practices have also applied to breast cancer exams as well.
Cancer treatment is always evolving – and even though we have used radiation successfully in the past, organizations like the AAPM keep the industry moving forward with the latest best practices and expert guidance in the field.