If you have a degree in physics and want to be involved in the latest medical technology, consider taking further training to become a medical physics healthcare scientist

As a healthcare scientist (also know as a clinical scientist) working in medical physics, you'll research, develop, test and maintain specialist equipment used to help prevent, diagnose and treat many kinds of diseases and health conditions.

Working closely with other healthcare professionals, for example doctors and radiotherapists, you'll play a central role in developing, planning and implementing patient treatment programmes. You'll also help to protect patients and healthcare staff from hazards such as radiation.

Responsibilities

Depending on the area in which you work, you may need to:

  • commission, assess and ensure the safe operation of specialist equipment used by medical staff in areas such as radiotherapy, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, laser technology and physiological monitoring;
  • plan and supervise radiotherapy treatment in discussion with medical and other staff;
  • speak with patients to explain treatment procedures and possible side effects;
  • liaise closely with doctors to add technical results to patient reports;
  • negotiate and agree changes to patient diagnosis techniques in response to new procedures;
  • process complex patient image data;
  • support clinical trials;
  • develop techniques to show what is happening in the body using x-ray, MRI, laser, ultrasound and ultraviolet technologies;
  • research new equipment developments and techniques, review existing local practice, advise on procurement of new equipment and compile reports to initiate changes;
  • oversee the quality control of equipment to ensure that correct and consistent results or outputs are achieved and ensure that ongoing maintenance routines are followed;
  • train and advise medical physics technicians on new equipment and protocols;
  • lecture and train other health professionals, including radiographers, nurses and doctors, in clinical practice;
  • draft and develop policies for operating equipment;
  • make audit visits to hospital departments to check compliance with health and safety legislation.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee healthcare scientists are usually employed at Band 6, starting at £26,302.
  • Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 (£31,383 to £41,373).
  • Salaries for principal and consultant scientists range from £40,028 (Band 8) to £99,437 (Band 9), depending on your experience and training.

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.

Working hours

You'll usually work a 37.5 hour week, 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. However, you may need to be geographically flexible to progress your career.
  • You will need to wear protective clothing when working with hazardous substances and radiation.
  • If working in the NHS, you may have to travel between hospitals and to meetings with regional specialists and for training courses. If you're working for a commercial company, for example a healthcare equipment manufacturer, you're likely to travel more frequently.
  • There are some opportunities to work overseas.

Qualifications

As a graduate with a degree in a subject such as pure or applied physics, engineering or applied mathematics, you can apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). Entry on to the STP is competitive and you'll need a first or 2:1 degree, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. For all applicants, getting good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful, as is evidence of research experience (for example through a relevant Masters or PhD).

The STP is a three-year, full-time workplace-based training programme and during this time you'll be employed in a fixed-term salaried post in medical physics (in radiotherapy physics, radiation safety physics, imaging (ionising radiation) or imaging (non-ionising radiation). The first year of training is spent on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three. Training includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in clinical science.

If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate. See the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) website for programme details for both external and internal applicants.

Details of training posts may be advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through the online application portal Oriel. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.

On successful completion of the STP you're eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.

For information on STP training in Wales, see the Workforce, Education and Development Services (WEDS). There are separate scientist training schemes in:

If you don't already have a degree, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP), which provides undergraduate training that leads to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science specialising in nuclear medicine, radiotherapy physics or radiation physics. Courses are full time (usually three years) and include at least 50 weeks of workplace-based training in the NHS. After graduation you can apply to enter the NHS in a healthcare science practitioner role or choose to apply for the STP, which offers pay on a higher scale and more opportunities for career progression.

Skills

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.

Work experience

Entry on to training schemes is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. To improve your chances, try and get some work experience within a hospital medical physics or engineering department. Arrange a visit to a department in your 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.

Make sure you attend an open day for your specialism, if there is one, to get a better insight into the role and the STP programme.

Employers

Although the majority of healthcare scientists working in medical physics are employed in the NHS, you can also work for:

  • private hospitals;
  • medical equipment manufacturers - helping to design and develop medical equipment;
  • nuclear medicine companies - working to protect the workforce and local environment from radiation exposure;
  • regulatory authorities;
  • the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness;
  • universities and research organisations;
  • research and development laboratories.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

Once qualified, you must keep up to date with the ongoing developments in scientific and medical research, as well as building on your laboratory and management skills. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include:

  • attending conferences, workshops and lectures;
  • publication in peer-reviewed journals;
  • presenting research and papers at conferences;
  • undertaking work exchanges abroad;
  • applying for research grants.

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.

Once you've got experience, you can train to become a consultant healthcare scientist via the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme. This five-year, workplace-based training programme includes study at doctorate level and, where appropriate, study for Medical Royal College qualifications such as fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists. See the NSHCS website for full details.

Career prospects

Once qualified, you can further your career by gaining experience, taking additional training, for example through relevant specialised postgraduate research, or a mixture of both. You may need to move to other hospitals to make the most of opportunities.

With several years' experience and further training you can apply for principal scientist or consultant scientist posts in 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, with responsibility for areas such as operational management, clinical and technical expertise and administration.

It's also possible to move into a career in research.