What is Health Physics?

Amy Hunter

Health physics is the study of how radiation affects living systems. A health physicist is responsible for the safety of people who work around radiation, and the community where a radioactive facility is located. Health physics is not the study of how radiation works to create energy, or to fight cancer, but rather it is the study of how to manage it safely.

Health physics may be involved in the study of radiation therapy to find more precise ways to target tumors.
Health physics may be involved in the study of radiation therapy to find more precise ways to target tumors.

People who study health physics have a wide range of job opportunities. They may work in hospitals, for manufacturing companies, nuclear power plants, government laboratories, and for regulatory agencies. Within this field of study, there are many sub specialties. Some common sub specialties are radioactive waste management, radioactive contamination control, environmental assessment, and radiological emergency response.

Radioactive contamination control is a key sub-specialty of health physics.
Radioactive contamination control is a key sub-specialty of health physics.

The increasing use of radiation for everything from energy to health care means that health physics is a growing field. Someone interested in becoming a health physicist should plan to study a wide range of subjects, including physics, biology, environmental science, toxicology, chemistry, and engineering. The career demands a dedication to learning, because even among trained health physicists, it is important to stay up to date on changes in technology.

People wishing to receive training in the field of health physics typically receive a two-year, or Associate's, degree. This training is very intensive, but does not provide the level of training needed to enter the workforce. The National Registry of Radiation Protection Technologists(NRRPT) and the American Board of Health Physics(ABHP) certify professionals in the field of health physics. Many colleges that offer degree programs in health physics collaborate with local agencies that use radioactive materials. Choosing a college with an existing partnership will allow you to complete a work-study program that will lead to better training and better job offers.

Once a health physicist completes training, there are many career opportunities to choose from. One possibility is to work in the environmental regulation field. Environmental regulators help determine what levels of radiation are safe in the environment and how radiation effects living organisms.

Health physicists that work in radiation waste management establish management programs for cleaning up radioactive materials. Health physicists that work in the medical care setting make recommendations for keeping medical personnel safe, and minimizing patient and personnel exposure to radiation. Some health physicists work as consultants and help design facilities that will house radioactive programs, or implement radiation control programs into existing facilities.

Health physicists study how radioactive matter affects living organisms.
Health physicists study how radioactive matter affects living organisms.

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