By Kristi Smith, Senior Medical Dosimetrist, Alyzen Medical Physics
Many people outside of health care don’t know what dosimetry is. That’s a shame because it’s an important and rewarding profession. I’ve had the privilege of being a senior medical dosimetrist at Alyzen Medical Physics—now a partner practice of Apex Physics Partners—for almost twenty years, and I’d like to share a bit about what I do for anyone who might be interested in dosimetry.
What Is Dosimetry?
First, the basics. Medical dosimetry is a component of radiation oncology, a field of medicine that involves the use of ionizing radiation to treat cancer in specific parts of the body. Dosimetrists calculate the radiation dose for cancer patients and design their radiation treatment plans. I tend to think of dosimetry kind of like a pharmacist: the radiation oncologist “prescribes” radiation treatment, and the dosimetrist comes up with the best way to administer the radiation to a tumor while minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue.
How I Became a Dosimetrist
I always had an interest in medicine. I broke a few bones as a kid and was always getting X-rays, which spurred an interest in radiology. I ended up majoring in radiology at Arkansas State University. As part of the radiology program there, I was exposed to different radiology modalities, including nuclear medicine, mammography, and ultrasound—but it was radiation therapy that sparked my interest. I was drawn to the idea of helping people at their most vulnerable: a cancer diagnosis is scary, and I wanted to be a part of putting patients’ minds at ease.
I entered the radiation therapy program at Arkansas State University, and as a bit of a math and science nerd, I was drawn to the physics aspects of radiation therapy. I earned a bachelor of science in radiologic sciences, which included an intense year studying medical dosimetry. I felt that year prepared me very well for a career in dosimetry: once I sat for my boards and became board certified, I was ready to work.
What a Dosimetrist Does on a Typical Day
A lot of what a dosimetrist does centers around preparing treatments for patients coming in for radiation and planning treatments for others. At our radiation therapy center, we’ll often have a morning meeting with the whole team to go over what patients we’ll see on that day or patients who have received their consultation and are ready for simulation, which is a critical part of treatment preparation. How many patients we see on a given day varies depending on which clinic I’m working at: smaller clinics can expect to see twenty or so a day, while larger ones might see as many as eighty.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a big impact on dosimetry in that it created a hybrid schedule for many dosimetrists, with some days of remote work and some on site. As much of the job involves treatment planning, many parts of which can be done anywhere, I’ve ended up working three days a week remotely and two at the clinic. I expect this will be a permanent part of dosimetry work after the pandemic.
Another part of the job involves visiting clinics to help troubleshoot when there’s a problem with the machinery—whether it’s the simulator responsible for running the radiation simulations, the CT machine for imaging, or the linear accelerator for administering the radiation.
Since I’m only in the clinic a few days a week, I don’t see patients every day. But when I do, I relish the chance to explain exactly what their treatment will entail. Again, cancer is scary, and people often let the stigma attached to radiation frighten them further. It’s my pleasure to explain what radiation therapy is and see the fear disappear from their eyes.
Rewarding and Challenging Aspects of Dosimetry
As dosimetry is so dependent on technology, and technology changes so rapidly, I would say keeping up with the latest developments is one of the more challenging aspects of the profession. Fortunately, there are many organizations that offer continuing education. Another challenge, and this is actually a great challenge, is that the advancement of technology has enabled our patients to live longer; the reason this is a challenge is because some patients come back with recurrent cancers. For a dosimetrist, this means taking into account which organ is being treated, how much time has elapsed since the previous treatment, and how much the organ has recovered.
There are many rewarding aspects of being a dosimetrist. I’ve found that dosimetrists and others who work in radiation oncology are compassionate people who care deeply about patients—and this makes for a positive work environment. I love the people I work with at Alyzen Medical Physics. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect is actually seeing our patients beat cancer and go on to live happy lives: I ran into an old patient at T.J. Maxx, for example, and she gave me a hug, letting me know how well she was doing. It truly warms my heart.
The Future of Dosimetry (We Need People!)
For all the reasons outlined above, I strongly recommend a career in dosimetry. There’s plenty of demand for dosimetrists in this country, in large part because the COVID-19 pandemic limited the number of students who could attend medical dosimetry programs—there are only about 3,500 dosimetrists in this country, and we’re going to end up with a shortage of about 400. Also, cancer diagnoses and treatments largely took a back seat to battling COVID-19, and there will be some catching up to do.
I feel fortunate to come to work every day and give people hope during a frightening time in their lives. I know that some people reading this would find a career in dosimetry deeply rewarding. Alyzen Medical Physics is proud to be a part of Apex Physics Partners—check out Apex’s careers page to learn how to pursue a career in radiation therapy.
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