Medical Physics vs Health Physics Careers: Which Path is Right for You?

By Stanley Thomas Fricke, PhD, & Timothy Jorgensen, PhD, MPH

Medical Physics and Health Physics are both health careers that deal with radiation. The public is often confused about which is which because of their similar-sounding names, but they represent two different career paths, requiring different educational training and different credentialing.

Career Outlook

Medical Physicists focus on the medical use of radiation in its various forms and how it can be used to diagnose and treat disease. They are responsible for the operation of the radiation-producing machines and typically work in the radiology units of clinics and hospitals, in medical research facilities, and in industrial settings. The medical physicist will also have a working knowledge of human anatomy and physiology and the specific uses of radiation in medicine. The medical physicist will also know the construction and use of x-ray, fluoroscopy, Computerized Axial Tomography (CAT), Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Single Photon Emission Therapy (SPECT), ultrasound, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), as well as various radiation therapy machines such as proton therapy, gamma therapy, brachytherapy. Some medical physicists may also be radiation safety officers, in charge of the safety and security of radioactive materials in a hospital.

Health Physicists are radiation protection professionals, primarily concerned with safeguarding humans from the adverse effects of radiation. They work to minimizing the risks associated with radiation use, while at the same time, maximizing its benefits. Health physicists typically work in medical, research, industrial, and regulatory settings. Health physicists will have in-depth knowledge of nuclear power plant operations, military use of radiation, Department of Transportation rules for transporting radioactive materials, and hazardous material clean-up strategies. They will also be involved with the disposal of radioactive waste. Some will be involved in anti-radiation-terrorism activities, and others will work in the nuclear nonproliferation field. They will all have in-depth knowledge of radiation detection, radioactivity measurement, and radiation dosimetry.

Educational Training

The entry point for both radiation careers is usually at the master’s degree level, and they both have similar undergraduate degree requirements for admission into their graduate programs: a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences, engineering, or mathematics.

Although the curricula for graduate-level medical physics and health physics have distinct learning goals, there is a significant overlap in core coursework. Mastery of basic radiation physics is the core of both types of training. Georgetown University Biomedical Graduate Education offers masters of science degrees in both Medical Physics and Health Physics.

Our Medical Physics degree program requires two academic years of full-time graduate study that includes both coursework and practical clinical training (53 credits). The first two semesters are dedicated to learning the fundamentals of radiation physics, radiation biology, and radiation protection. In addition, they receive training in human anatomy and physiology, as well as anatomical and functional imaging. The last two academic semesters are devoted to specialty coursework and practical training in medical physics sub-specialties. Students choose to specialize in either diagnostic or therapeutic medical physics. No thesis is required for the degree.

Our Health Physics degree program requires at least two semesters of coursework followed by a research thesis (traditional track) or a three-month internship (nuclear nonproliferation track). The training period typically lasts from 12 to 21 months depending upon the academic course load and the length of the thesis research. The tracks differ in the number of course credits (26 for Traditional; 30 for Nuclear Nonproliferation). Also, the Traditional Track requires a research thesis, while the Nuclear Nonproliferation Track instead requires a three-month internship. Students must select a track at the time of application, as admittance into the degree program is track specific. Both tracks require a comprehensive written exam upon the completion of all the required coursework. Unlike medical physics, the health physics master’s degree may be pursued on a full-time or part-time basis.

Professional Credentialing

Medical physics credentialing requires a minimum of a master’s degree and two years of internship. During this time, the focus is on medical applications of physics with specific requirements in diagnostic imaging, nuclear medicine, or radiation therapy. Students and interns learn in-depth knowledge of medical equipment (construction, use, and quality assurance). Medical Physics graduates pursue professional credentialing as Board Certified Medical Physicists. Board certification is granted by either the American Board of Medical Physics and confers the title Qualified Medical Physicists (QMP), or the American Board of Radiology and confers the title Diplomat of the American Board of Radiology (DABR). Certification examinations are typically in three parts where the first part is taken immediately after the master’s degree is awarded, with parts 2 and 3 following a two-year residency.

Health physics graduates generally pursue professional credentialing as certified health physicists. A Certified Health Physicist (CHP) is an official title granted by the American Board of Health Physics. Certification requires at a minimum a bachelor’s degree with a major in physics and six years of work experience, or a master’s degree in health physics and five years of work experience (i.e., obtaining a master’s degree counts as one year of job experience). In addition, applicants for CHP credentialing must pass a two-part qualification exam. CHP credentialing is not required to practice health physics, but credentialing typically enhances job prospects, promotion potential, and annual salary. Most practicing senior health physicists have their CHP.

Are you ready to pursue a career in radiation health? Learn more about our Medical Physics Master’s Program and our Health Physics Master’s Program to see which path is right for you.   

Stanley Fricke

Stanley Fricke, PhD
Stanley Fricke has been working in the field of Medical Physics for well over 30 years. He has a passion for Diagnostic Imaging. Sharing this passion with others has led to dozens of collaborative papers and grants that continue to push the technological envelope of radiological imaging and related biomedical applications.

Timothy Jorgensen

Timothy Jorgensen, PhD, MPH
Timothy J. Jorgensen is the Director of the Health Physics Graduate Program and a Professor in the Department of Radiation Medicine. He is the Chair of Georgetown University’s Radiation Safety Committee and is a Consociate Member of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Professor Jorgensen is also the author of the award-winning book Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation (Princeton University Press).

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