Radiation therapy is one way to treat certain types of cancer. The treatment involves directing a radiation beam or inserting radioactive seeds into or near a cancerous tumor. Radiation therapy can help shrink the tumor, but it also can damage healthy tissues and organs. It is the medical dosimetrist’s job to ensure that radiation treatment does the most good with the least harm to the patient.
The medical dosimetrist thus plays a vital role on the radiation oncology team, which may include a radiation oncologist, medical physicist, nurses and radiation therapists. When a cancer patient is prescribed radiation therapy, a medical dosimetrist determines exactly how to deliver the prescribed radiation dose.
The medical dosimetrist first employs a three-dimensional computer model to calculate exactly where and how to distribute the radiation. To minimize damage to surrounding tissues, the medical dosimetrist may decide to use beam modification devices to better target the radiation. Specialized equipment may be required to cover or immobilize parts of the patient’s body to further protect against exposure.
Before the patient receives treatment, the medical dosimetrist runs computer simulations and makes necessary adaptations to make sure the plan will work as designed. Then the medical dosimetrist supervises the radiation therapist in implementing the treatment plan. Radiation treatment can require one dose or several treatments scheduled over days or weeks.
In addition to planning radiation treatment, medical dosimetrists may help calibrate radiation oncology machinery, educate medical dosimetry students and work on research teams to help improve the effectiveness of radiation therapies.
It is important for medical dosimetrists to be good communicators. The medical dosimetrist must first listen carefully to the radiation oncologist to understand the treatment goals, accurately document the treatment plan and then explain it to the radiation therapist responsible for the plan’s implementation.
Medical dosimetrists are employed in hospitals or cancer treatment centers and usually work a normal 40-hour week. They use computers to design and test radiation treatments; spend a lot of time documenting treatment plans; and consult with physicians, patients and the radiation oncology team.
Their work can put them in proximity to radioactive materials, so proper safety precautions must be taken to minimize exposure.
Salary Range and Outlook
Medical dosimetrists earn between $81,000 and $112,000.
The job outlook for medical dosimetrists is very good for three reasons:
- America is aging, and cancer is more common in older people.
- Radiation therapy technology is advancing rapidly and proving effective for many types of cancer.
- Many current medical dosimetrists are nearing retirement age.
To become a medical dosimetrist, you must complete a four-year college degree, preferably in the physical sciences.
Following graduation, you must apply to a medical dosimetry education program. These programs are highly competitive and last anywhere from 12 to 24 months. The program of study involves both classroom education and clinical practice.
Education to become a medical dosimetrist is rigorous, because you must have a thorough understanding of how cancer affects the body, how radiation is used to treat cancerous cells and how to calculate the exact dose of radiation required in achieving the treatment objective. Dosage calculations require knowledge of higher-level math and the ability to visualize bodily structures using computer-generated models.
You’ll also learn all about the equipment and techniques used in radiation therapy and how to protect the safety of the patient and medical personnel.
Certification by the Medical Dosimetrist Certification Board requires passing an examination and meeting continuing education requirements.