Medical Physics Graduate Degree Newly Offered

Columbia University RECORD
Vol. 19 No. 5

Columbia's School of Engineering and Applied Science has begun a graduate program in medical physics this fall to prepare professionals to safely use radiation and other techniques for diagnosis and treatment of illness.

The 30-point program, which leads to a master of science degree in medical physics, may be pursued either full-time or part-time and can be completed in one academic year.

A similar program, with emphasis on public health rather than engineering aspects of medical physics, is currently being offered at Columbia's School of Public Health. Both prepare medical physicists or health physicists for certification exams offered by two professional organizations. The new program, however, accommodates individuals who seek an engineering position in a medical-physics related industry, as well as those desiring hospital employment.

There is considerable demand for medical physicists, according to the new program's coordinators, Marco Zaider, associate professor of radiation oncology at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and John Helm, assistant professor of applied physics on the engineering faculty.

The American Association of Physicists in Medicine and the American College of Radiology, two professional organizations that certify medical physicists, have published a report predicting a 7 percent increase in staff positions annually. In a 1991 survey, the AAPM found an average salary for full-time medical physicists of $77,100, with holders of bachelor's degrees earning $61,400, master's degrees $69,400 and doctorates $84,800.

The association defines medical physics as "the applications of physical energy, concepts and methods to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease." Practitioners may use ionizing radiation, infrared radiation, ultrasound, nuclear magnetic resonance, heat and lasers in diagnosis and treatment.

Medical physicists are usually employed by hospitals, which require a master's degree for staff positions and a doctorate for senior positions. Professionals may work in diagnostic imaging, where they take pictures of the body using X-ray, ultrasound, computerized tomography or magnetic resonance equipment, in radiation therapy, where they plan treatments for cancer patients, or in radiation safety, where they supervise the storage and handling of radioactive pharmaceuticals and equipment. Specialists in nuclear medicine examine the body's metabolic processes using radioactive substances that humans can ingest.

Smaller hospitals may hire one individual to perform all these duties. In larger hospitals or teaching hospitals, medical physicists may hold teaching appointments.
Utility companies employ health physicists at nuclear reactors, where they monitor the safety of procedures involving radioactive materials. Another career path is in government service, at such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Course requirements for the master's degree include four physics courses in the Department of Applied Physics, four medical courses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and electives in applied physics, nuclear engineering, bioengineering and other disciplines. A practicum, in which students practice medical physics under a doctor's supervision, is required both for graduation and certification. A bachelor's degree in engineering, mathematics or one of the physical sciences is required for admission.

Engineering undergraduates who have chosen the college's new premed major will be able to take courses in medical physics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. If they are accepted to the medical physics program, they may apply that course work to their graduate degree requirements, Zaider said.

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