As a medical physicist you’ll research, develop, test and maintain specialist equipment to help prevent, diagnose and treat various illnesses and health conditions. You’ll also help to protect patients and healthcare staff from hazards such as radiation.
Clinical technologists ensure that the technology and diagnostic tools used in patient treatment in hospitals and clinics are safe, accurate, well-maintained and monitored to a high standard. You’ll use your knowledge of physics or engineering in this is practical role, and your work ensures that every patient receives accurate, safe and efficient diagnosis and treatment.
These roles typically involve working in a multidisciplinary team that can include clinical scientists, radiologists and radiographers. Depending on your area of work, you may also have some contact with patients.
Top tips for the sector
- If considering applying for the Scientist Training Programme, read the NHS Constitution and understand the expected values and behaviours. Try to think of ways you can demonstrate these values.
- Find relevant work experience in local medical physics/clinical engineering departments, any healthcare experience is useful, e.g. volunteering.
- Keep up to date with healthcare science news and the challenges affecting the NHS e.g. an ageing population.
Undergraduate Medical Physics
Medical Physics is available to study as part of a number of degree programmes such as:
Student Case Studies
Trainees: £35K (average 2023)
Qualified: £40K upwards (2023)
Principal/consultant scientists: £45K upwards (2023)
You'll usually work a 37.5-hour week, although weekend, evening or on-call work may be required.
Promotion is based on merit and you may need geographic flexibility to make the most of available opportunities.
Skills Valued by Employers
- Interest in healthcare and the functions of the human body
- Analytical and investigative mind
- Excellent oral and written communication skills
- Ability to work independently and use your initiative
- Laboratory and management skills
- Good IT skills, as most laboratories are highly computerized
- Meticulous attention to detail
- Problem solving and researching alternative solutions
- A self-motivated and confident approach to work
- The ability to lead and motivate others
- Willingness to keep up to date with the latest scientific and medical research in medical physics.
- NHS Scientist Training Programme outline
- Physics World – Medical Physics
- Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine
- IPEM Making a Difference – Physics Careers in Medicine
- Nuclear Medicine scan from a patient perspective
- Association of Renal Technologists
by Dr Olga Fernholz Student and Business Relationship Manager
Medical physics is the application of physics at a practical level for the treatment of patients. It is an umbrella term for a very wide range of physiological measurement and treatment techniques. The definition can go deeper to include background physics, electronics, but also anatomy, and physiology relevant to various procedures performed at medical treatment. Medical physics also encompasses not so obvious analytical areas such as image processing and statistical analysis as well as more applied specialisms like clinical engineering which deals with design and maintenance of sophisticated medical equipment. In simplified terms, medical physics looks at how physics laws and phenomena play out in a living body and how this knowledge can be used to treat a patient.
Medical physicists are not physicians. They are not medical practitioners, they are “behind the scene” scientists who deal with the application of physical science to healthcare. For example, they are scientists who would investigate the likelihood of burns being produced when a defibrillator is used on a patient. They would estimate the uptake of a radioisotope in a diseased organ and its effect on the healthy tissue outside the organ. They would apply the physics of sound (acoustics) to the study and measure of hearing (audiology) helping to detect and define hearing defects. Medical physicists would help answer the questions: what can go wrong in a human body and what remedies are available? They would also design hearing aids for the hearing impaired. Subsequently, they provide expertise to support clinical services at the hospital: clinical tests and equipment to diagnose and treat poor health.
Medical physicists transfer physics principles to physiology and bioengineering. Just like aerospace engineers tap into the knowledge of material science to produce stiff, strong and lightweight structures like glass, carbon fibres or epoxy matrices, so do medical physicists draw on the same principles in the study of bones and tissues. Mechanics becomes biomechanics and biofluid mechanics, physics expertise focuses on the physics of the senses, study of tissue damage, respiratory function and effects of radiation on the living organism.
Medical treatments such as radiation therapy and nuclear medicine have been developed and advanced by medical physicists doing research, for example, on the properties of heavy ion beams that can be used to deliver energy at a very defined depth in the human tissue. On the application side, medical physicists prepare radiation plans in hospitals to ensure that energy is deposited in a human body at the right depth and to the right extent to minimize damage to healthy tissue.
Similar range from research to application can be found for non-ionising electromagnetic radiation (MRI), electromagnetic fields (ECG, impedance tomography, MEG) and ultrasound imaging to diagnose, treat and manage medical conditions. These competencies are, in turn, based on the additional technical skills of image processing and analysis and mathematical and statistical techniques. Technical staff who are responsible for safety, standards and protection when using this kind of equipment will have training in medical physics as well. The sister discipline of medical physics – clinical engineering – lies at the intersection of engineering and medicine and taps into the ingenuity of engineering to design diagnostic and therapeutic techniques and equipment to advance healthcare.
The application of physics and engineering to medicine is continuously expanding. This advancement welcomes more researchers to join this broad environment which promises not only possibilities at a practical level, but also exciting research into fundamental physics principles and phenomena.