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Q&A with a Medical Physicist — Celebrating the International Day of Medical Physics

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Ahmed Meghzifene, Head of the Dosimetry and Medical Radiation Physics Section at IAEA, spoke about the responsibilities and important work of medical physicists. (Photo: J. Li/IAEA)

Behind the radiation machines used to fight cancer are specialized scientists who bring together medicine and physics to keep patients safe. These highly-trained health professionals play a key role in maximizing the benefits of radiation medicine while reducing the potential for harm.

To celebrate the International Day of Medical Physics today and its aim to raise public awareness about medical physics, Ahmed Meghzifene, Head of the Dosimetry and Medical Radiation Physics Section at IAEA, answered a few questions about medical physicists and what they do and how the IAEA contributes to their work.

What is a medical physicist?

Medical physicists (MP) are well-trained specialists who work with very sophisticated technology used in radiation medicine to diagnose and treat patients with diseases like cancer and cardiovascular diseases. MPs need to have knowledge of both the human body and physics principles, and how to apply these principles for diagnosing or treating patients. So in some sense, an MP is a bridge that connects medicine and physics.

A doctor working in radiation medicine practices medicine and is focused mainly with the diagnosis and treatment of disease. A medical physicist focuses on the treatment delivery, ensuring its effectiveness and patient protection.

What does a medical physicist do?

In nuclear and radiation medicine doctors rely on sophisticated machines with very specific requirements that need to be properly tested, installed and calibrated to benefit patients and keep them safe.

For example, for machine calibration, MPs do calculations and measurements to determine the exact dose of a radiation beam of a machine and use it to safely treat a patient. If you deliver too much radiation then it could cause more harm than good to the patients. If you deliver too little, then it won’t be enough to destroy all the cancer cells, and the treatment will not be as effective, which could cause the recurrence of the cancer. So machine calibration is very important.

Ultimately, it’s an MP’s job to know the ins and outs of how to setup and safely use a radiotherapy machine, from doing the mathematical calculations and measurements to determine exactly where to target radiation at a tumour and to assessing how well the machine is functioning.

What kind of education does it take to become a certified MP?

According to international requirements, MPs should have a postgraduate, master’s-level degree. They also need to complete a two-year supervised residency training programme at a hospital where they work directly with the patients and the machines, under the supervision of a qualified medical physicist. It is very similar to the requirement for a medical doctor.

After that, they get certified through a medical physicist certification exam. But in order for them to maintain their certification, they have to take steps to continuously develop professionally and show that they are maintaining their knowledge and skills and staying up-to-date on the most current technology.

How do medical physicists relate to the IAEA?

Radiation medicine is a key area of the IAEA’s work. And part of that work is helping countries ensure they have well-trained medical physicists.

In collaboration with international professional societies, the IAEA has published a document with clear definitions and established an internationally harmonized criterion on what it means to be a MP. This is the first time this kind of criterion has been laid out.

We have also published almost all the textbooks that now form the basis for MP training programmes at the postgraduate level. We have three textbooks that are used by many universities to teach fundamental medical physics, and up until a few years ago, one of these textbooks has been the bestselling IAEA publication. We see them being used by more and more institutions.

We also have clinical training guides for hospitals with residency training programmes. If you go to our website, such as the ‘Human Health Campus,’ you will find that we have a lot of materials focusing on highly specialized areas within medical physics that MPs can use for further training.

How is the IAEA celebrating this year’s International Day of Medical Physics?

Today we have prepared a virtual celebration inviting international and regional professional societies to deliver key messages about this year’s theme on ‘Education in Medical Physics — the Key to Success’. This year we are also being joined by Julio Piñuela, the young medical physicist from Venezuela who came up with the idea of establishing the International Day for Medical Physics.

Find out more about this year's celebration of International Day of Medical Physics here.

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