Health Physicist  What They Do

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Physicists Career Video

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dotHealth physicists make sure proper care is taken around nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons, high-energy particle accelerators, X-ray machines and other sources of radiation used in medical research and therapy.

They work in hospitals, research labs and defense plants. Their work generally controls the beneficial use of radiation. They prevent contamination in workers, the public and the environment.

"Health physics means radiation safety. So the role of a health physicist is to make certain that radiation is being used safely," says Ken Miller. He is the director of health physics at Penn State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

"We deal with all types of radiation sources, which are all potentially harmful. These include both ionizing radiation -- X-rays or gamma rays -- and non-ionizing, such as lasers and microwaves."

"While we recognize there are many benefits in the medical field and nuclear power industry research, we also concede there can be a risk of harm," says Genevieve Roessler. She is a retired health physics professor at the University of Florida. "Our goal is to make sure the people who are working with radiation sources are doing so safely, so that the public is not exposed. It's kind of a watchdog job."

"For example, if you have an industrial nuclear facility, you expect to have radiation around. And the people who are working in that facility should know how to handle radiation sources and how to protect themselves by monitoring how much radiation they are exposed to in their daily work," says Reza Moridi. Moridi is vice-president of science and technology at the Radiation Safety Institute.

"So the job of a health physics professional is to assist these workers in ensuring their safety."

dotHealth physicists work in many different areas and environments, from uranium mines and petroleum refineries to research labs and hospital rooms.

"Health physicists work in nuclear power plants, in military environments where radiation sources are used, in medical research facilities, food sterilization facilities and other industries where radiation is a tool," says Moridi. "Wherever radiation sources are used, health physicists can be helpful."

Radiation's medical applications keep health physicists busy. Radiology is the department at a hospital that diagnoses patients using X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Miller is head of radiology at the Hershey Medical Center.

"Here on the hospital end of things, we're using radiation in many forms," says Miller.

"We look after 100 X-ray machines for use in the diagnosis of patient disease and conditions. We have a nuclear medicine department that uses radioactive drugs to perform diagnosis and imaging procedures on patients. We have an active radiation therapy department that uses radiation to treat cancer patients. We also monitor the use of surgical lasers."

dotHealth physicists' work environments vary from the field to the lab to the desk. How much time they spend in each depends on what their job demands. Their work hours also vary.

"It depends on where they work," says Moridi. "If they work in a nuclear power plant, they may be partly working in their office, partly in the plant itself, measuring radioactivity in the work environment. If they're in a uranium mine, they're working in the mine itself, measuring that environment, then going back to the office doing reports. Everywhere in the field, it's a combination of fieldwork and office work."

dotThere are no special physical requirements involved in being a health physicist. The physical risks like radiation exposure are minimal. "This isn't a high-risk job," says Paul Mansfeld. He is a radiochemist at a private radiation monitoring lab in Hebron, Connecticut.

"We survey our facility once a month. And we ourselves are monitored every three months to gauge how much radiation hits our bodies," he says.

"The radioactive waste that we process gets compacted into 55-gallon steel drums, which can weigh 200 to 400 pounds. But we generally use machines to transport these," says Miller. "Other than that, the heaviest instrument you'd have to lift is maybe 20 pounds."

"Certainly, people with physical disabilities could do it, as there are many people in the field who are in wheelchairs," says Roessler. "There are some who are out there in the field, getting samples and working outdoors. But it's mostly desk work and management."

At a Glance

Maintain safe radiation levels

  • You can work in hospitals, research labs or defense plants
  • There are no special physical requirements
  • You'll need a strong background in physics, biology and chemistry