Rebecca Marsh, PhD, associate professor & medical physicist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, contributed this post.

The role of the medical physicist is diverse and extensive—but sometimes not well-defined. Some medical physicists are well-integrated into hospital operations while others work off-hours so as to not disrupt clinical operations. In either case, it can be easy to miss some of the specialized knowledge and training that clinical medical physicists have and the myriad of ways health care facilities can take advantage of their physicists’ knowledge to improve quality and patient care.

If you work with diagnostic imaging equipment, there is probably a medical physicist who supports clinical use of this equipment. Do you know who your medical physicist is? Here are a few general characteristics to help you spot clinical medical physicists:

  • Has a graduate degree (either an MS or PhD) in science or engineering;
  • Has completed a three-part process, earning ABR certification in Diagnostic, Radiation Therapy or Nuclear Medicine Medical Physics*;
  • Often has completed a two-year clinical residency;
  • Has an extensive background in general math, science, computers, data analysis, PACS and informatics and (often) research design.

Diagnostic medical physicists are extensively trained in how imaging equipment works, the underlying mechanisms for image artifacts, clinical applications, radiation dosimetry, radiation biology and clinical applications of various imaging modalities.

So, what can your diagnostic medical physicist do for you? While known for testing and calibrating imaging equipment – measuring radiation output and evaluating image quality – we have so much more to offer, including but not limited to:

Planning – We can be useful when selecting new equipment or planning a new site. For example, we are well-versed in how technological advances affect image quality and dose. We also understand public exposure limits and can often help design clinical layouts so that the amount of room shielding (and cost) is minimized.

Protocol optimization – We know a lot about how imaging equipment works. Our physics testing includes learning about the settings and characteristics of each individual piece of equipment and how changing these settings affect radiation output and image quality. We can help you get the most out of this very expensive equipment.

Radiation risk – We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about radiation, and we care deeply about the safety of patients and staff. Some of us may send you that annoying friendly reminder when your dosimeter readings increase a bit, but we do it because we care. Our expertise can be useful in developing hospital policies, optimizing imaging protocols and communicating with staff and patients. Wondering how the scanner-reported DLP corresponds to patient skin dose during a CT-guided interventional procedure? Have questions about how much dose a fetus gets during an abdominal CT scan of the mother and whether the child is at increased risk of fetal malformation or childhood cancer? Ask your medical physicist.

The next time you see yours, ask him or her how you can work together to improve patient care and safety.

*Some over-achievers are certified in more than one specialty.

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