How to become a medical physicist

A medical physicist is a clinical scientist who works in the physical sciences. They help to introduce clinical technology and scientific methods into healthcare and ensure their safe, accurate, and effective use.

Their work supports the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of diseases, illnesses, and medical conditions.

Medical physicists work in a variety of areas, including:

  • radiotherapy
  • radiation protection
  • imaging physics
  • non-ionising radiation, such as ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and lasers
  • nuclear medicine physics
  • clinical engineering
  • medical equipment management
  • rehabilitation engineering

To work in the NHS, medical physicists must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as clinical scientists.

Starting your career as a medical physicist

Choosing subjects are school

Useful subjects that could lead to a career as a medical physicist include:

  • Maths
  • English
  • Physics
  • Engineering Science
  • Science
  • Computing Science
  • Human Biology

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some experience of working in healthcare by doing a work placement. There may also be opportunities to volunteer. This could help you when applying to university, college or a new job with NHSScotland.

Apprenticeships

Foundation Apprenticeships

A Foundation Apprenticeship could give you the skills, knowledge and work experience to start your career journey in healthcare. Find out more about Foundation Apprenticeships in:

Modern Apprenticeships

You could get into this job by starting with a Modern Apprenticeship. It could be the start of a much longer-term career with the NHS. You’ll develop your knowledge and skills on the job while you gain nationally recognised qualifications. Find out more about Modern Apprenticeships in:

College and university

At college, you could study Applied Sciences. This could lead to future university study.

To become a medical physicist, you’ll need a degree in one of the following subjects:

  • Physics
  • Engineering
  • Biomedical Engineering

Widening access

Widening participation supports adult learners who want to go to university. If you’re an adult with few or no qualifications, you could get into higher education through the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). Many universities also provide access programmes to help you get the degree entry qualifications you need.

Search for college or university courses on My World of Work.

Scottish Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering Training Scheme

The Scottish Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering Training Scheme is the route to becoming a medical physicist in the NHS.

The programme lasts 3.5 years and is accredited by the Academy of Healthcare Science (AHCS). You’ll need a minimum of a 2:2 to meet the entry criteria.

In your first year, you’ll complete a master’s degree. In the second year, you’ll rotate around different specialisms in medical physics. In years 3 and 4, you’ll pick a specialism to focus on.

Once you complete your training, you’ll complete a portfolio of work for assessment and registration with the HCPC.

The role

As a medical physicist, you’ll use a range of equipment to help prevent, treat, or diagnose medical conditions in patients.

What you’ll do

Radiotherapy

In radiotherapy physics, you’ll be responsible for the precision and accuracy of radiotherapy treatment. Radiotherapy involves targeting radiation beams to kill cancerous tumours.

Some typical tasks include:

  • using computer calculations to develop individual treatment plans for patients
  • planning treatment to target the tumour while making sure the radiation dose to the surrounding tissue is minimised
  • precision calibrating of radiotherapy equipment

Nuclear medicine

Nuclear medicine is the use of radioactive substances to help diagnose and treat patients. This involves using small amounts of these substances – called radiolabelled pharmaceuticals – to look at what is happening inside the body.

Some typical tasks include:

  • administering radiolabelled pharmaceuticals to patients
  • taking images and measurements using highly sophisticated equipment
  • interpret the results as part of a multidisciplinary team

Radiation protection

Radiation protection is making sure that the environment and equipment used in radiation treatment is safe for both patients and the staff using it.

Some typical tasks include:

  • testing equipment
  • advising staff on the safe use of radiation equipment
  • use specialised equipment to measure and calculate the doses of radiation received by patients during treatment and by the staff delivering it

Non-ionising imaging

Non-ionising imaging includes ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and optical imaging. Non-ionising imaging techniques are generally safe, and can also include other treatment methods, including ultraviolet treatments for skin conditions and laser surgery.

You’ll work with a variety of imaging techniques, including:

  • ultrasound – using high-frequency soundwaves to create real-time images of parts of the body
  • MRI – using a combination of magnetic fields and radio waves to create images of the patient, particularly soft tissues and parts of the central nervous system
  • optical imaging – using the physical properties of light to help diagnose illnesses, by measuring how tissues react when different wavelengths of light are shone onto them

Imaging physics

Imaging using ionising radiation includes diagnostic radiology, interventional radiology and nuclear medicine.

You’ll work with a variety of imaging techniques, including:

  • x-ray imaging – using x-rays to create a 2D image of a part of the patient
  • fluoroscopic x-ray imaging – using x-rays to create a real-time image of the patient
  • computed tomography (CT) imaging – using x-rays while rotating the patient to create a cross-sectional image of a part of the patient
  • nuclear medicine imaging – using scanners to detect the movement of radiolabelled pharmaceuticals through the patient’s body, providing information on how their body is functioning

Top skills

Useful skills for a medical physicist include:

  • communication
  • collaboration
  • attention to detail
  • teamwork
  • leadership
  • problem-solving
  • working with technology

You’ll also be expected to know how to use specialist equipment and software.

Who you’ll work with

It’s likely that you’ll work in a multidisciplinary team, which could include:

  • clinical engineers
  • clinical technologists
  • doctors
  • nurses
  • radiographers
  • radiologists
  • sonographers

Working environment

As a medical physicist, you’ll likely work in a hospital setting.

Learning and development

As a qualified medical physicist, you’re expected to undertake continuous professional development activities to:

  • keep your knowledge and skills up to date
  • maintain your registration with the HCPC

The HCPC provides courses, conferences and seminars where you can update your skills and knowledge.

During your career as a medical physicist, you can also work towards additional qualifications, such as:

  • higher specialist development
  • PhDs and professional doctorates

All these qualifications will help your career prospects, leading to more senior roles or the chance to advance into more specialised areas of service.

Professional bodies

Medical physicists working in the NHS may be affiliated with the following professional bodies: