The Profession of Medical Physics
Medical physics is a field of study and practice that applies the facts and principles of physics and engineering to medical practice. It is distinct from biomedical engineering, biophysics and health physics in its focus on patient care. Medical physics is a profession because its practitioners work independently, albeit often as members of a health care team, and we take personal responsibility for the quality of our work.
There are two main specialties within medical physics, therapy and imaging. Therapy is the delivery of ionizing radiation with palliative or curative intent and imaging uses ionizing and nonionizing radiation for diagnostic purposes. Many medical physicists practice all aspects of medical physics, but specialization as a therapeutic radiological physicist, diagnostic radiological physicist, medical nuclear physicist or medical health physicist is becoming more common.
Medical physics requires a solid undergraduate preparation in physics or another technical discipline (for example, nuclear engineering) and graduate study. While many current medical physicists studied pure physics or related engineering subjects at the graduate level, increasingly graduate study in medical physics per se is the preferred route of entry into the profession. Graduate programs in medical physics and residency programs in medical physics may be certified by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs (CAMPEP). Not only does CAMPEP accreditation betoken a high quality program, but it confers advantages to graduates of accredited programs by shortening the experience requirements of some of the boards that certify medical physicists.
Medical physicists demonstrate their preparation and professional competence by achieving certification. The predominant certifying board in the U.S. is the American Board of Radiology, which, along with the American Board of Medical Physics and the American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine, administers certification examinations. These examinations typically consist of a written section covering basic medical physics, a second written section focusing on a particular specialty (e.g., therapeutic radiological physics, diagnostic radiological physics, medical nuclear physics, medical health physics, magnetic resonance imaging physics, or molecular imaging), and an oral examination. One may not take the examinations until one has earned appropriate educational credentials and has accumulated satisfactory practical experience.
A number of states in the U.S., of which the first was Texas, license medical physics as a profession. They do this as a means of protecting the public safety and welfare. In Texas, one may not practice medical physics without a license. Texas issues temporary licenses to medical physicists who are preparing for their certification examinations by gaining practical experience, either as on-the-job training or in a clinical physics residency program. Temporary licensees must practice under the direct supervision of a fully licensed medical physicist. Medical physicists with full licenses may practice their licensed specialty independently, their preparation for which is demonstrated by education, by experience and by board certification.
Medical physicists in the U.S. have two professional organizations, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) and the American College of Medical Physics (ACMP). Many medical societies also welcome medical physicists and have strong and active membership among medical physicists.
Medical physicists might practice privately — often consulting for several institutions — or work on a hospital staff or in an academic healthcare institution. We work closely with radiation oncologists, radiologists, nuclear medicine physicians, dosimetrists, nurses, a variety of medical technology specialists and hospital administrators. Our work requires strong scientific and technical abilities, clear communication, good people skills and the capability to work carefully, accurately, thoroughly and promptly. People's well-being depends upon the quality of our work.
To learn more about the profession of medical physics, visit
- The American Association of Physicists in Medicine
- The American College of Medical Physics
- The American Board of Radiology
- The American Board of Medical Physics
- The American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine
- The Commission for the Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs
- The Texas Board of Licensure for Professional Medical Physicists
Among the journals that publish the research work of medical physicists are