Healthcare scientists working in medical physics apply physics and technical skills to the practice of medicine to help prevent, diagnose and treat many kinds of diseases and health conditions.
They research, develop and test specialist equipment used by medical staff in many areas including radiotherapy, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, laser technology and physiological monitoring.
The majority of healthcare scientists (also known as clinical scientists) working in medical physics are employed in the National Health Service (NHS) and play a central role in developing, planning and implementing patient treatment programmes. They work closely with other healthcare professionals, for example doctors and radiotherapists.
However, others are employed in medical equipment manufacturing companies, regulatory authorities, universities, research organisations and companies using radioactive materials.
Healthcare science staff working in medical physics usually specialise in areas such as:
- clinical pharmaceutical science;
- radiation safety physics;
- radiotherapy physics;
- diagnostic imaging services.
Medical physics is closely linked to clinical engineering.
Depending on the area in which they work, staff are involved in services to patients, research and development activities. These include:
- engaging in technical procedures, which form part of patient care and treatment, e.g. monitoring the spinal cord during spinal surgery or assessing the results of physiological measurement to assess organ function or blood flow;
- planning and supervising radiotherapy treatment in discussion with medical and other staff;
- working with patients in a range of roles, for example, explaining treatment procedures and possible side effects;
- liaising closely with doctors to add technical results to patient reports;
- training and advising medical physics technicians on new equipment and protocols;
- lecturing and training other health professionals, including radiographers, nurses and doctors in clinical practice;
- negotiating and agreeing changes to patient diagnosis techniques in response to new procedures;
- processing complex patient image data;
- acting as the on-call duty physicist to respond to problems and provide advice and technical assistance;
- developing techniques to show what is happening in the body using x-ray, MRI, laser, ultrasound and ultraviolet technologies and optimising use of these;
- researching new equipment developments and techniques, reviewing existing local practice, advising on procurement of new equipment and compiling reports to initiate changes;
- commissioning new or upgraded equipment to achieve compatibility with existing machines;
- monitoring equipment to ensure that correct and consistent results or outputs are achieved and ensuring that ongoing maintenance routines are followed;
- drafting and developing policies for operating equipment;
- troubleshooting problems with hardware and software;
- undertaking audit visits to hospital departments to check compliance with health and safety legislation, including personnel monitoring, decontamination routines, radioactive waste management and radiation detection advice.
- Jobs in the National Health Service (NHS) consist of nine pay bands and are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. Salaries for trainee healthcare scientists typically start at around £25,700, depending on the employer.
- Salaries for qualified healthcare scientists usually start on Band 6 and range from £25,783 to £34,530.
- Experienced healthcare scientists (Band 7) can earn between £30,764 and £40,558.
- Salaries for principal scientists, the highest grade at which healthcare scientists work, range from £39,239 (Band 8) to £98,453 (Band 9).
Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.
Salary levels for healthcare scientists working for private companies, universities, government bodies and other organisations may vary.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Hours of work tend to be 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, although weekend, evening or on-call work may be required. In some areas, core hours are 8am to 8pm and staff will work 37.5 hour weeks within this core. Job-share and part-time work is possible.
What to expect
- The job is mainly hospital-based and may involve working in different hospital departments, laboratories, clinics or in theatre with patients.
- Vacancies are available throughout the UK, both for trainees and for more experienced practitioners.
- Protective clothing may need to be worn when working with hazardous substances and radiation.
- Within the NHS, travel may be required to other hospitals, for meetings with regional specialists and for professional development (training courses).
- Those employed by commercial companies, for example healthcare equipment manufacturers, may need to travel within the UK or overseas on a regular basis.
- There are some opportunities to work overseas.
In order to work as a healthcare scientist (also known as a clinical scientist) in medical physics you need to successfully complete the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). This makes you eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows you to register as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).
The STP is a graduate-entry programme that leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS. Successful candidates are employed by an NHS Trust as trainee healthcare scientists and join a salaried three-year, fixed-term training programme, which includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in your chosen science specialism.
Entry on to the STP is competitive and you will need a first or 2:1 degree (typically in physics, engineering or mathematics) or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. Gaining good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful.
An MSc or a PhD in a relevant subject area may be advantageous when applying for trainee positions, but is not a requirement. Additional skills and experience, such as involvement with research projects and publications, may also be useful.
NHS organisations in England and Wales annually offer 250 to 300 training posts in life sciences, physiological sciences, physical sciences and informatics. Details of training posts have been advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS): STP recruitment website. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.
There are separate scientist training schemes in:
- Scotland: NHS Education for Scotland: Clinical Scientists
- Northern Ireland: NI Direct Healthcare Scientist
For those without a degree, undergraduate training that leads to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science accredited by the National School of Healthcare Science is provided by the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP). Students will apply for a specific degree specialising in nuclear medicine, radiotherapy physics or radiation physics.
Entry on to the degree course usually requires a good mix of GCSEs at A to C grade and a minimum of two A2/A-levels, including science subjects. These requirements may vary so check with individual institutions before applying. Courses are full time (usually three years) and include at least 50 weeks of workplace-based training in the NHS. Applications are made via Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). For a list of accredited courses see the Health Careers Course Finder.
Graduates from the PTP can then apply to enter the NHS in a healthcare science practitioner role or they may choose to apply for the STP, which offers pay on a higher scale and more opportunities for career progression.
You will need to show:
- an interest in healthcare and the functions of the human body;
- strong communication skills;
- the ability to work independently;
- laboratory and management skills;
- meticulous attention to detail;
- a self-motivated and confident approach, to gain the most from training placements in busy hospital departments;
- a willingness to keep up to date with the latest scientific and medical research in this field;
- the ability to solve problems and research alternative solutions.
Entry on to training schemes is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. To improve your chances of success, work experience within a hospital medical physics or engineering department is advisable. Arrange a visit to a department in a local hospital to find out more about the role and to help you decide on a specialist area. Direct experience with patients can also be useful.
The majority of healthcare science staff working in medical physics are employed within the National Health Service (NHS). Other employers include:
- private hospitals;
- medical equipment manufacturers;
- nuclear medicine companies;
- regulatory authorities;
- research organisations;
- research and development laboratories.
Medical equipment manufacturers employ medical physicists to assist in the design and development of equipment. Skilled in the commissioning of new equipment and monitoring machine outputs and performance, they may also assist in training and fault resolution. Equipment manufacturers may also produce medical devices such as implants, heart valves and prosthetic limbs.
The nuclear energy industry requires medical physicists to protect the workforce and local environment from radiation exposure.
Similar roles could be performed working for government research agencies or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Health Service Journal
- Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM)
- Jobs.ac.uk - for jobs in academia.
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
Trainee healthcare scientists undertake three years of training accredited by the National School of Healthcare Science when on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). They spend the first year of training on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three.
Trainees also follow a period of structured part-time study alongside practical training. This leads to an MSc in clinical science (specialising in radiation safety physics, radiotherapy physics, imaging with ionising radiation, imaging with non-ionising radiation or clinical pharmaceutical science).
On successful completion of the STP you are eligible to apply to the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS) for a Certificate of Attainment, which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).
Once qualified, clinical scientists must keep their skills up to date and follow the ongoing developments in research. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include attending conferences, workshops and lectures, writing for journals and presenting research and papers at conferences. It is possible to undertake research at PhD level.
A programme of conference, study days and workshops is offered by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM). Members can also access online training resources.
It is possible to join the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme, a five-year workplace-based training programme and, where appropriate, study for Royal College qualifications. For entry on to this route, applicants will need registration (or eligibility and application underway) with the HCPC as a clinical scientist; normally at least one further year in the workplace to consolidate and enhance clinical scientific skills, learning and experience (including research and education); and the ability to demonstrate meeting any additional specific selection criteria required for a particular specialism at interview.
Career progression to higher grades, following successful completion of the training period, may involve moving to another hospital. Further study and training may follow and some clinical scientists study for a PhD either full or part time.
Candidates are assessed on their track record as well as on the basis of evidence such as publication in peer-reviewed journals, active participation in local, national and international meetings, and awareness of current developments.
Ongoing training and professional development is mandatory to retain HCPC registration. A formal continuing professional development (CPD) programme aimed at supporting and enhancing career progression is provided by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) for all its members.
It is possible to apply for principal scientist or consultant scientist roles after several years' experience at a professional grade. This can be either a clinical or management role.
A consultant role in management is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section, and advanced budgeting and administration skills are often required.