In modern medicine, ionizing radiation plays a crucial role in diagnosing and treating various medical conditions.
However, exposure to this powerful energy can also pose potential health risks, and research shows that patient-related stress can negatively impact radiation therapy outcomes.
That's why it is so important to have experts who understand the science behind ionizing radiation and how to minimize its harmful effects.
Enter certified health physicists (CHPs).
Through one-on-one consultations, CHPs dramatically reduce radiation treatment-related stress in patients, which boosts patient satisfaction and health outcomes, a study of 66 random cancer patients seeking external beam radiation therapy by the University of California San Diego says.
“This study is a wake-up call for medical physicists that there are new ways we can add value to patient care,” Todd F. Atwood, the study’s lead author and a professor of transformational clinical physics at the University, said in the report.
James Powell, a medical and health physicist and CHP at the U.S. Naval Hospital Naples in Italy, agrees, adding that it’s all about “relating to the patient,” which he says CHPs do even better than health physicists because their training and experience extend far beyond just medical.
“When people get into medical physics, they kind of fall into one zone and generally stay there, whether it’s therapeutic, diagnostic or another practice,” Powell says. “But when you’re a CHP, you’re trained in all these specialties and more—lasers, deconning, x-rays, nuclear and other materials. So, being a CHP means you’ve seen and prepared for scenarios both within and outside the medical environment, which increases your breadth of experience and maximizes the probability of finding common ground with the patient where efficient communication occurs, thus improving mental and physical outcomes.”
Here are the proven ways CHPs reduce patients’ radiation treatment-related stress and improve health care outcomes, according to Powell’s experience and Atwood’s news-making study.
Atwood says patients “increasingly want to be more involved with their care,” but problems abound.
“They are looking for more information,” he says. “Typically, they start by searching online, but what they’re finding is either non-specific or just too complex. They have unanswered questions, which often lead to confusion, stress and anxiety.”
This is where a CHP can help.
Powell says CHPs can educate patients on the benefits and risks associated with medical procedures that involve ionizing radiation and help them make informed decisions about their care.
In fact, they’re already trained to do that.
Before interacting with patients, many CHPs complete a patient communication training program to improve their ability to communicate technical information in a way that patients can understand to help alleviate concerns.
Take Atwood’s study, which divided its participants into two groupings. One group received two physicist-patient consults to teach them about the technical aspects of their radiation therapy. That expert remained on call for the duration of the treatment to address additional questions. The other group, meanwhile, received standard care without the additional physicist-patient consults.
Patients who received medical physicist consults significantly improved anxiety and satisfaction metrics.
While research shows that being an expert ear is emotionally and mentally effective, CHPs still need to deliver on the physical outcomes.
They can do so in a variety of ways. One is by accurately measuring and monitoring the radiation dose received by patients during medical procedures and by working with radiation oncologists to ensure complex treatment plans are properly tailored to each patient.
CHPs can also develop and direct quality control programs to ensure treatments are delivered safely, including performing safety tests on the equipment used in a patient’s treatment.
Furthermore, they can work to ensure all medical facilities comply with federal, state and local regulations regarding the use of ionizing radiation in medicine. This important task is commonly done by a facility’s radiation safety officer (RSO), a position widely held by a CHP.
CHPs play a critical role in monitoring the performance of medical equipment to ensure that it is functioning correctly and producing images of high quality.
They are experts in the science of ionizing radiation and understand the complex technologies used in medical imaging. CHPs use this expertise to perform regular quality control tests, such as image quality evaluations and radiation exposure assessments, to ensure the equipment is calibrated correctly and maintained, produces high-quality images and minimizes patient exposure. Such equipment includes X-ray machines, CT scanners and nuclear medicine cameras.
Additionally, CHPs may work with manufacturers and vendors to evaluate new equipment and technologies and provide recommendations for improving their performance and safety.
Radiation Exposure Reduction
CHPs use their expertise in radiation safety to assess the risks associated with medical procedures that involve ionizing radiation.
Powell says they consider numerous factors such as the type and amount of radiation used, the patient’s age and health status, and any potential complications or side effects of the procedure. This information allows CHPs to determine the overall risk associated with a specific medical procedure and provide recommendations to minimize those risks.
CHPs strive to balance the benefits and the potential risks, sometimes providing recommendations for reducing patient exposure to radiation during a procedure, such as weighing the pros and cons of protective shields—which, in many instances, have become unnecessary—or limiting the number of images taken.