Who's who: Medical physicist

Another member of the expert radiation therapy team is the Medical Physicist. We are going to meet Daniela Thorwarth, who will explain how her work impacts on cancer patients.

Daniela's i.d. It reads "Daniela Thorwarth, Medical Physicist, University Hospital of Tubingen, Germany" © Friedhelm Albrecht, University of Tübingen

A day in the life of a Medical Physicist

A Medical Physicist in radiation oncology has many different jobs. The first job for my colleagues and I every day is to verify the quality and stability of the radiation therapy treatment machines to guarantee the correct radiation dose for each individual patient treatment.

  • The Medical Physicist is responsible for optimising settings and configurations of the radiation treatment.
  • For each patient that comes for radiation therapy, we create an individual treatment, which is calculated, and further improved depending on different aspects related to patient anatomy, tumor localisation, tumor stage, and other factors.
  • Only intensive interdisciplinary discussions with Radiation Oncologists and Radiation Therapists (RTTs) will allow the creation of optimal treatment plans.

A large part of my day is also to make sure that all machines are safe in terms of quality controls of these and the processes involved in radiation therapy. Finally, my team is responsible for all radiation protection aspects in order to guarantee a safe working and treatment environment for employees, patients and relatives.

 Two images. The first shows two medical physicists, the second shows a cancer treatment machine

Consequently, the routine clinical work of a Medical Physicist does impact on the daily treatment of a cancer patient as physicists are involved in the calibration1 of the treatment machines, in the preparation of the patient’s treatment plan and in the quality control of this plan. Medical Physicists are responsible for all technical aspects related to the quality of the daily radiation treatment.

A further aspect of the daily work of a Medical Physicist, as mentioned above, is radiation safety. Physicists routinely perform tests and measurements on the treatment machines in order to ensure the safety of the treatment, i.e. to focus the radiation dose where it matters and protect all healthy organs of the patient at the same time.

Research and development

Finally, a major task of Medical Physicists in radiation therapy departments is research and development of the technology used for cancer treatment to improve radiation therapy continuously.

A major medical physics development which is currently being implemented in the clinical environment is image guided radiation therapy using Magnetic Resonance (MR) imaging, so called MR-guided radiation therapy.

  • This new technology allows us to visualise the position and extent of the tumor in real-time during irradiation.
  • One of the major impacts expected from this new treatment technique is a higher precision of the radiation beam which will go hand in hand with a reduction of side effects and thus improve the quality of life of cancer patients treated with radiation therapy.

  1. to determine, check, or rectify the graduation of (any instrument giving quantitative measurements).

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Radiation Oncology: From Diagnosis to Survivorship

Trinity College Dublin