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My career journey as a medical physicist

When it came to a point where I was considering what to study at university, I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise (I had seriously considered becoming an astronaut, but then realised that wouldn’t work with my fear of flying…). However, one thing I did know was that I loved physics.

Fact: Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays to treat certain diseases – usually different types of cancer.

I did my Physics BSc at Durham University and the course included many core areas of pure physics such as electromagnetic waves/fields, particle physics, quantum physics and theoretical physics. Towards the end of my degree I had started to think about careers or further study. I knew I wanted to apply my knowledge of physics to a job rather than continue studying full-time, but I really wasn’t sure of the careers that were relevant or suitable for me. After a discussion with a career’s adviser, I realised that medical physics might be something I would be interested in – it combined a lot of physics principles with helping improve people’s lives, which I thought would be a really valuable career in terms of the impact this could have on many people, in addition to performing cutting-edge research and the opportunity to help advance cancer treatments.

To be a medical physicist in the NHS, you need to undergo training and qualifications to become a ‘clinical scientist’. There are a few ways of doing this training, and I decided to apply to the national training scheme – ‘Scientist Training Programme’ (STP). This training programme also trains potential clinical scientists in areas other than medical physics, such as clinical engineering, cardiovascular science and reproductive science.

You don’t have to be a physicist to become a clinical scientist – you could be an engineer, a biologist, a chemist or a computer scientist!

The training scheme is made up of two main components – a part-time MSc at an accredited university and work-based learning at a hospital. Depending on which clinical scientist section you choose to train in affects which centre or university you will attend. I began my training post at Leeds Teaching Hospitals in September 2016 and my MSc was undertaken at Newcastle University.

In the medical physics section, your first 15 months consists of rotating around the different areas of medical physics, namely: imaging with ionising radiation, imaging with non-ionising radiation and radiotherapy. After this, you choose to specialise in one of these areas and continue your training in this area for the remaining 21 months.

Imaging with ionising radiation involves patients being administered with safe radioactive substances that can be identified in the body using a detector, or using a CT or X-ray unit to take images. Imaging with non-ionising radiation involves taking images using an MRI or ultrasound scanner. These procedures can be used to diagnose medical conditions. Medical physicists are involved in making sure that the detectors and scanners are working safely and correctly, and checking the strength of the radioactive sources. In addition, we are also responsible for ensuring that members of the public and other staff are protected from the radiation in the hospitals and that we are obeying the legal radiation limits.

I selected my radiotherapy specialism in 2018. Radiotherapy uses high energy X-rays to treat certain diseases – usually different types of cancer. Physicists involved in radiotherapy check that the radiotherapy treatment machines (known as linear accelerators or LINACs for short) are delivering the treatments safely. We also use software that produces a plan of where the radiation should be targeted so that the patient’s cancer can be treated and without too many side effects. Radiotherapy physicists also take part in performing cancer research studies and clinical trials to help improve the chances of curing the cancer and improve the patient’s quality of life.

A new and exciting area of radiotherapy is proton beam therapy, where protons are used to kill cancer cells, which is different to the high energy X-rays that current radiotherapy uses.

Using protons is advantageous as they deliver more of the radiation to the cancer than the nearby organs, which means that there may be fewer side effects compared to how we treat cancer currently. This is very useful for young patients who are more sensitive to radiation than adults. There are two brand new NHS proton therapy centres in the UK – University College London and The Christie in Manchester, the latter of which was recently featured on ‘Horizon’ on BBC2 that showed behind the scenes footage of this new development. Proton beam therapy will lead to the potential for a lot of new treatments for cancer in the future, but a lot of clinical scientists need to perform research to see which treatments will be beneficial – watch this space!

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WRITTEN BY

Jen Cannon
Clinical Scientist, James Cook University Hospital

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