A radiation physicist ensures the safety and proper operation of medical devices that use radiation sources. Professionals typically work in hospitals, oncology centers, universities, and specialty medical centers that provide radiology equipment to diagnose and treat different conditions. A medical radiation physicist makes frequent rounds in a facility to monitor radiation levels, determine whether or not patients or medical professionals are at risk of exposure, and establish effective safety procedures.
Many machines and pieces of equipment in hospitals rely on radiation sources to operate properly. Testing equipment such as X-ray machines and computerized tomography devices, and cancer treatment equipment like linear particle accelerators, emit radiation that can be potentially harmful or fatal if administered incorrectly. It is the job of a skilled radiation physicist to make sure that such equipment is operating properly and that patients, doctors, and others are not overexposed to harmful radiation. An expert uses sophisticated testing equipment to monitor emissions and recommend safe doses for patients.
A radiation physicist may also research and analyze the effects of radiation from certain medical devices, and make policy recommendations on how to improve their effectiveness and safety. Physicists are frequently held responsible for ensuring that a hospital is in compliance with federal and local regulations regarding radiation exposure, preventative measures, emergency procedures, and safety equipment. A professional may also lead training courses or seminars for other medical professionals to explain safe operating procedures of potentially hazardous devices.
The requirements to become a radiation physicist vary by location and employer, though most professionals hold at least bachelor's degrees in medical physics, radiation biology, or similar disciplines. After receiving degrees, most new physicists must work as technicians or assistants to established professionals in the field for a period of up to two years, gaining hands-on experience and becoming more familiar with the practical aspects of the job. Many countries require a prospective radiation physicist to gain certification by logging a set number of practical training and passing a written examination. In the United States, certification is offered through the American Board of Health Physics.
Continuing education is usually considered very important for a practicing medical radiation physicist. Professionals frequently attend refresher courses and seminars to make sure they stay up-to-date on the latest radiation research and equipment technology. With continuing education, time, and proven skills, radiation physicists may be are able to advance to supervisory positions within a hospital. Some experienced physicists decide to work in private or university laboratories, conducting independent research studies on different aspects of radiation and medical treatment.