Medical Physics

By: Thomas Brown, PhD, DABR, Tri-Cities Cancer Center

People are often surprised to learn that there are physicists working at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center (TCCC). In the minds of a lot of people, physics deals with concepts that seem detached from their concerns and day-to day experiences. Black holes and large hadron colliders may sound interesting to some but it’s not exactly life-or-death. Medical physics blows that perception out of the water. The American Association of Physicists in Medicine defines medical physics as “an applied branch of physics concerned with the application of the concepts and methods of physics to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease”. Although it is not a well-known healthcare profession, medical physics plays a critically important role in radiation oncology, nuclear medicine and radiology.

In a radiation therapy facility like TCCC, the work performed by medical physicists is essential for the safe and effective radiation treatment of cancer and benign disease. The primary function of the medical physicist is to ensure the safe and accurate delivery of the radiation dose prescribed by the physician. To achieve this objective, the physicist is responsible for the technical supervision of all treatment and imaging procedures.

Their scope of practice includes the following:

  • Quality assurance and calibration of the linear accelerators and radioactive sources used for patient treatments, including the measurement and characterization of the radiation
  • Commissioning of new treatment technology and software in the clinic
  • Treatment plan design and consultation with physicians
  • Technical review of every treatment plan and patient chart prior to treatment
  • Design and implementation of appropriate shielding and procedures to ensure radiation safety for clinical staff and patients, including personnel dose monitoring
  • Direct supervision of high-dose stereotactic and brachytherapy treatments that require a high level of technical expertise

To qualify as a clinical medical physicist, you are required to go through a similar training structure as a physician. You must obtain a graduate degree (MS or PhD) in physics, medical physics, or related discipline and complete a two-year clinical residency before you are eligible for board certification by the American Board of Radiology or equivalent national certifying body. The medical physics team at TCCC consists of Rex Ayers, MS, DABR, MCCPM, CHP and Thomas Brown, PhD, DABR. They have made significant improvements in the quality of patient care at TCCC; recent achievements include the successful introduction of frameless stereotactic radiosurgery treatments for Trigeminal Neuralgia – a first for the Tri-Cities – and the implementation of new imaging and treatment protocols essential for securing APEx accreditation for TCCC, the gold standard for patient safety in radiation oncology.

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