The Hidden Financial Cycle That Could Be Hurting Your Medical Physics Practice

Cancer doesn’t sleep, but the United States has less than 7,000 qualified medical physicists serving oncology patients today. This means that if you’re running a radiation oncology unit or a cancer treatment center, you’re either a “have,” or a “have not.”

Too many clinics are in danger of becoming “have nots” because they’re falling prey to a hidden financial cycle. As competition over qualified specialists drives salaries up, administrators are asking medical physicists to work overtime as a cost-cutting measure. This short-term strategy is a catastrophe in the long run.

Short-Term Benefit, Long-Term Crisis

Many physicists are working ten to twelve hours a day because administrators don’t want to invest an additional $50,000 a year in new staff. That might help balance budgets for a while, but the oncology clinics who adopt this tactic are playing with fire. When physicists burn out, their former employers are left with a hefty bill.

The cost of hiring a medical physicist who works on a locum tenens basis can be as high as $200,000 a month. Making matters worse, that’s far lower than the opportunity cost that oncology organizations pay each day their units are inactive. Depending on the area, medical centers can expect to generate $500,000 to $750,000 in revenue every day their linear accelerator is in operation. That translates to millions of dollars a month in missed opportunities if medical physicists quit.

What’s more, it’s not as if practices can easily attract qualified physicists. Just because someone has credentials doesn’t mean they are the right cultural fit. It also doesn’t mean they want to work in your particular location. Clinics who lose physicists can wait a very long time before they find a good replacement.

Ethics are also vital. Medical physics is such a niche specialty that no one but a physicist can tell if it’s being done right. Doctors and nurses simply cannot oversee the work of a medical physicist to ensure that it’s accurate. That leaves physicists with a heavy burden of liability, making it that much more important to keep them happy.

Make the Sensible Investment

The irony is that radiation oncology can be one of the most dependable sources of revenue for a health system. Recessions come and go, but patients continue to need medical physicists. That’s why hospitals kept their oncology departments up and running even as they shuttered many services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Radiation oncology tends to be one of the three hospital departments that actually make money, covering the costs of operating every other unit.

Keeping medical physicists happy is no mystery. Here are a few things every practice manager should be doing:

  1. Ask your medical physicists what they need. Make sure they know they have your support.
  2. Don’t ask your physicists to work more than forty hours a week without rewarding them for extra hours. Every practice has its own workflow and pace of operation. A good rule of thumb is that one physicist can serve about 250 patients a year.
  3. Be honest about the real workload.
  4. If you work within a hospital, advocate for your physicists. Administrators want to cut costs, and they usually don’t understand the unique needs of medical physicists. They’re used to working with nurses and doctors, not practitioners of a niche specialty that only has 10,000 qualified members globally. Make it clear to administrators that medical physicists can pick and choose where they want to work at will.
  5. Hire enough dosimetrists to keep your physicists focused on high-value tasks. Dosimetry is time-consuming and will tie your physicists down if they lack support.

People Are Your Greatest Asset

When it comes to radiation oncology, being a “have” is all about treating people right. The medical physics shortage punishes practices that don’t put their people first. Too many medical physicists can’t take paid time off because their practice has no one to cover for them. Too many professionals are leaving a field that’s starving for them because they’ve been asked to work twelve to thirteen hours a day for years on end.

There’s a flip side to all of this. Listen to your physicists, and they will feel appreciated. Be honest about workloads, and they will trust you. Make sure they have a good work/life balance, and you’ll develop a reputation as a different kind of practice. At a time when so many administrators are prioritizing the short term, play the long game. Treating people right is good business.

Talk to the Medical Physics Experts

Whether looking for a job or deciding whether or not to hire an additional physicist at your practice, Apex Physics Partners wants to talk to you. We have a Great Place to Work designation because we put our physicists first. If you’re a medical physics professional looking for a job, check out our recent openings. If you’re a practice owner struggling to balance making difficult human resource decisions while doing your job well, check out the benefits of partnership.