Background - What is Medical Physics?

Medical Physics in General

It is probably since the discovery of the x-rays by Roentgen in 1895, that a new branch of physics, medical physics, was created. This branch applies physics to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease. The principle sub-areas involve the application of physics to:

  1. Radiation oncology: The treatment of cancer with ionizing radiation, although non-ionizing radiation can also be used in certain cases.
  2. Diagnostic radiology: Diagnosis of disease using imaging with x-rays, ultrasound and magnetic resonance.
  3. Nuclear medicine: Diagnosis of disease using imaging with injected radio-pharmaceuticals, and treatment of some disease with injected radio-pharmaceuticals.
  4. Radiation protection (health physics): The study of probable radiation hazards and the associated radiation protection and radiation legislation required.

Medical physicists are usually involved in clinical service and consultation; research and development; and teaching, with the relative distribution of responsibilities varying considerably between physicists. The distribution of responsibilities will vary depending on the employer type. The type of employer may be a university, a university medical or cancer center, an independent hospital or clinic, a private hospital or clinic, industry or self practice. Each type of employer will have a particular emphasis: e.g., universities and university centres require greater academic components, while independent or private clinics may require greater clinical components. It is obvious then that medical physicists require academic as well as clinical training. The latter is usually provided by on the job training or through residency programs with structures similar to those required by many other health care professionals.

Distribution of Medical Physicists

In many non-teaching hospitals, medical physicists usually hold professional appointments in one of the clinical departments, and are members of the professional staff of the hospital. Medical physicists employed in academic institutions such as universities or university health centers are members of the academic staff of an academic or clinical department, or in an independent medical physics department. In many non-teaching hospitals, physicists hold professional appointments in one of the clinical departments, and are members of the professional staff of the hospital. Some of the larger teaching hospitals employ a substantial number of medical physicists who are organized into medical physics departments. The medical physics departments are found in the larger centers and provide support to clinical departments for various academic, clinical and service tasks. There is a steadily increasing demand for appropriately trained medical physicists in all large medical centers, smaller hospitals and industry producing radiation-based diagnostic and therapeutic systems.

At present, there are about 5000 practicing medical physicists in North America alone. As of July 2000, for 178 actual positions in Canada there were 41 vacancies (Interactions: Cdn. Medical Physics Newsletter, 46(3), pp. 112-113, 2000). Because of the increase in the complexity of equipment, the rate of manpower needs in medical physics will be greater than the expected 7 % to 9 % increase in patient population only. The employment prospects for newly graduated medical physicists are excellent in North America and in Europe. An unemployed appropriately trained medical physicist is very difficult to find, indeed.

Professional Medical Physics

Medical physicists in Canada and the US join their national organizations, the Canadian Organization of Medical Physics (COMP) and the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), which are part of the international organization, International Organization of Medical Physics (IOMP). These promote professional activities of medical physicists by publishing journals and newsletters, and by organizing scientific meetings and special seminars.

Several professional organizations, such as the Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine (CCPM), the American Board of Medical Physics (ABMP), and the American Board of Radiology (ABR) offer certification in medical physics. The certification is obtained through evidence of having obtained appropriate clinical experience (min 2 years for competence membership level, and additional 5 years for fellowship level for the CCPM) AND having passed a rigorous examination. Certification is usually required for medical physics positions in the medical environment. Licensure of certified medical physicists already exists in several US states, and the establishment of licensure is increasing in popularity in the US states and in the Canadian provinces. Certification by the ABMP, ABR or the CCPM is sufficient to obtain licensure.

More background information is available at both the AAPM and COMP websites: