The importance of Medical Physics in 2016: the people behind the machines that treat cancer
Medical physicists are physicists that use their scientific skills to solve problems related to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Since medical physicists are both scientists and health professionals they are in a unique position to directly translate new discoveries into new treatments beneficial to patients.
Physicists have been involved with medical applications for a very long time, for over 5000 years, in fact, for as long as medical procedures have existed. Well-known applications are the tools and methods that doctors use to diagnose and treat cancer, the scanners and the radiation therapy devices and the like. Prominent examples of physicists that were responsible for transformative discoveries that affected the development of medicine are:
Cormack and Hounsfield who won the Noble prize in Physiology and Medicine (1979) for the invention of X-ray CT imaging;
Lauterbur and Mansfield who won the Noble prize in Physiology and Medicine (2003) for the invention of MRI;
The Canadian Harald E Johns who invented 60Co radiation therapy (1951).
These are but few examples of physicists that have transformed modern medicine.
The role of physics in medicine goes much further than the important applied role in the delivery of health care. In an issue of the journal Lancet on April 19, 2012 (http://www.thelancet.com/series/physics-and-medicine) devoted to this topic, we are presented the different fronts at which physicists make contributions to the advancement of medicine, including imaging, new therapies using nano-technologies and the development of an interdisciplinary new biology.
It is concluded with a statement that ‘(Physics) contributions will grow as the molecular mechanisms of the disease are better understood and as new technologies enable the investigation of these molecular processes in vivo.Medical physicists have an especially important role to play; for example, in patient safety, ensuring the safe, as well as the effective, implementation of new physics-based health technologies’.
Despite the intrinsic role of physics in medicine, be it at a fundamental level or at an applied level, medical physicists are not publicly known as being vital to the health care delivery or the health research operation. Why is that?
One reason might be that modern medicine is complex and complex problems are tackled by a team of different professions, not by single professions. In health care institutions, these teams are typically led by physicians, the professionals that foster the direct link with the patient and have the primary responsibility over the patients’ well-being. However, the tools used by the physician rely heavily on the inventive character of the medical physicist, the innovative translation work to bring it into the clinic and the detailed quality assurance work by the medical physicist.
A second, even more direct reason may be that medical physicists simply don’t explain their role very well to the general population. Well, …, on this front I believe it is time for medical physicists to profile themselves better, to explain what they are doing, what they are developing and show how critical their contributions are in modern medicine. In short, … its time to step into the limelight!
Social media is an interesting, powerful and interactive communication instrument. We will be using it to attempt to lift the veil over our research and the ongoing work at McGill Medical Physics and on the, `behind-the-scene’ role that is played by the medical physicist in the care of patients.
You can now follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn @McGillMedicalPhysics or #McGillMedicalPhysics and on Twitter @McGillMedPhys.
Dr. Jan Seuntjens, Ph.D., FCCPM, FAAPM, FCOMP
Professor - Department of Oncology, Medical Physics Unit
Director - Medical Physics Unit, McGill University; Department of Medical Physics, McGill University Health Centre