Coinciding with the birthday of Marie Curie, 7 November is the International Day of Medical Physics and a time to celebrate our medical physicists. Medical physicists inhabit a diverse field. They work in hospitals, universities and in industry as service providers and researchers. The field was born and thrives on the back of curiosity driven research in basic physics, such as Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895 and the discovery of the positron in 1932 that was central to the development of positron emission tomography (PET) decades later.
Medical physics is central to the treatment of cancer with different types of radiation, from X-rays, protons and heavy ions to ultrasound, and medical imaging techniques ranging from basic X-ray exposures to advanced modalities like PET. Medical physicists also provide radiation protection services in hospitals and industry.
By its very nature, the field is interdisciplinary. Depending on their subfield, medical physicists may use radiobiology, anatomy and physiology, cancer biology and engineering in their daily work. And no medical physicist is an island: they typically work in teams that can include medics, radiation therapists, radiographers, nurses, engineers, technicians and biologists.
In hospitals, medical physicists ensure imaging and treatment services are delivered safely and to the highest standards. This might take the form of monitoring and managing instrumentation, commissioning new technologies that improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients and assisting in the standardisation of clinical trials that rely on physics-related technology for data.
In research and development, medical physicists develop new technology and improve upon existing ones – not only for patient use, but also for basic research that investigates the function of the human body. And as medicine evolves towards molecular-based imaging and therapy, input from physicists will be crucial.
But disappointingly, despite the important work they do, many of the general public don’t even know that medical physicists exist. I have memories of the blank looks I received during my time as a clinical medical physicist as I told people what I did for a living. “Physicists work in hospitals? Really?” was a common response. Maybe it’s the fact they work behind the scenes, or the fuzzy, interdisciplinary nature of the field that throws people – in fact, when I contacted several researchers for comments on their work for this blog, a common response was “Well, it depends what you mean by medical physics.” The field is closely related to and overlaps with biomedical engineering.
Aside from this identity problem, maybe medical physicists, whoever that might include, also aren’t so good at tooting their own horn. Or perhaps, delivering services such as cancer treatment or performing quality assurance on a CT scanner lack the glamour and therefore the exposure that astronomy or particle physics might receive.
In any case, today is all about celebrating these unsung heroes.