Should You Be A Doctor or a Medical Physicist?

Should You Be A Doctor or a Medical Physicist?

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Updated January 16, 2020 Updated January 16

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While many students aspire to become doctors, very few are aware of the growing field of medical physics, where experts predict 12,000 jobs will need to be filled in China alone in the next decade.  

To find out more about careers in medical physics, we asked Professor David Huang from Duke Kunshan University to shed light on this little-known field and find out who might be the right candidate for the job.  

What is medical physics?

As its name suggests, medical physics is a hybrid of physics and medicine. Medical physicists apply their knowledge of physics, biology, engineering and computer techniques to disease diagnosis and, in particular, cancer treatment. Collaborating with physicians and other medical professionals on diagnosis and treatment, medical physicists are in charge of:

  • Quality assurance
  • Designing a cancer treatment plan for radiotherapy
  • Developing the best techniques to produce high-quality imaging with the lowest radiation dose
  • Monitoring radiation safety for patients, staffs and general public

They also conduct research and teaching.  

How is it different than medicine?

Medicine and medical physics often overlap. For example, in radiotherapy, the radiation oncologist is the person involved in prescribing radiation doses and defining tumors, but the medical physicist is the one designing the treatment plan based on the doctor’s treatment goal to make sure the highest dose goes to the tumor and the lowest dose goes to the surrounding tissues.

Doctors and medical physicists work together very closely to discuss treatment options and techniques and agree on a treatment plan, but medical physicists will always be the ones monitoring dose-delivery accuracy and radiation safety.  

So, when dealing with an individual patient, the radiation oncologist will look at the patient’s scans and decide on the course of action and the areas that will be treated, including the areas surrounding the tumor to be avoided. The medical physicist will then be the person responsible for making sure that the prescription is carried out in the best, safest, most efficient way possible.

Loosely speaking, the radiation oncologist writes the prescription and the medical physicist ensures that the patient actually gets what has been prescribed.  

The two roles undergo different training paths because they involve different areas of knowledge. This is why, if you’re thinking of going into medical physics, your best bet is to do a master of science in medical physics.  

How much will I earn?

If you’re weighing the pros and cons of a career in medical physics, it’s worth keeping in mind that, like physicians, medical physicists enjoy comfortable six-figure salaries and a very positive job outlook. Also, you can work in industry as a researcher, application specialist, sales support or engineer.

How do I know medical physics is right for me?  

Some people are better suited to careers in medical physics than others. As well as a very good understanding of radiation physics and the different ways in which radiation is used in the medical arena, you should have a genuine desire to work in a clinic and help patients. Interpersonal skills are absolutely crucial as medical physicists interact with patients, and you’ll need to feel comfortable working as part of a large team of radiation oncologists, therapists, nurses and dosimetrists.  

Duke Kunshan University offers a two-year MSc in Medical Physics run jointly with Duke University in North Carolina in the US. Students spend their first year in China on Duke Kunshan University’s campus in the Jiangsu province, and a summer session plus the first semester of their second year on the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina.  

The MSc features seminar courses, elective courses, field-trips and practicums (both in China and in the US) to expose you to a clinical environment and build experience. There’s also a strong research thesis component to train you to identify and resolve problems in a clinical environment.  

This article was originally published in August 2018 . It was last updated in January 2020