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Emma Catterall - Radiotherapy Physicist - NHS Tayside

Training in Medical Physics

This training in Medical Physics comprised:

Year 1: MSc in Medical Physics at the University of Aberdeen to gain theoretical knowledge of the underlying science. This also included a three-month research project. It involved using radiochromic film to study dose distributions from axial CT exposures, and was undertaken in the Radiation Protection department in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.

Year 2: Training placements in three areas of Medical Physics (radiation protection, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine) all undertaken in Ninewells Hospital. This gave me a chance to put theory into practice and decide which specialism was right for me. This training involved performing routine work under supervision, as well as the opportunity to become involved in research projects. This was assessed through the submission of three written portfolios and three viva-voce examinations in these subjects.

Years 3 and 4: Further training in my chosen specialist area of Radiotherapy at Ninewells Hospital. Here I gained more in-depth knowledge and experience, preparing me for my future career. This part of the training was again assessed through the submission of a portfolio along with an oral examination to determine whether I was competent and safe to work independently. I attained registration as a Clinical Scientist from the Health and Care Professions Council in August 2014.

Radiotherapy Physics

Radiotherapy involves the treatment of disease, especially cancer, with ionising radiation. I chose to specialise in Radiotherapy because I enjoy the diversity and continual development in this field; and the overlap with other areas of Medical Physics, such as imaging and radiation protection, means my training in other disciplines won’t go to waste.

Radiotherapy provides a variety of working activities for a Physicist, including direct clinical involvement when planning patients’ treatments along with more technical work and innovation and development. Throughout my training I have been involved in all these activities, with the level of supervision reducing as my experience has developed.

Radiotherapy physicists are responsible for a range of advanced technology throughout the department. During my training I assisted with the commissioning of a new linear accelerator, which is used for external beam radiotherapy treatments. I also helped to implement kV imaging on the treatment units for verification of patient set-up before a treatment. Observing the progression of these projects and seeing the equipment brought into clinical use has been one of the most rewarding parts of my training.

Physicists carry out research projects to develop new techniques and help the department to provide the best possible radiotherapy service. As part of my training I was involved in the introduction of 4D CT scanning. This imaging technique is used to assign CT images to different stages in the respiration cycle and consequently generate a sequence of images showing the extent of tumour motion as a patient breathes. 4D CT scanning can be used to improve radiotherapy treatments of lung cancers as this allows any breathing motion of the tumour to be accounted for. Projects such as this enabled me to develop analytical and problem solving skills as well as benefiting the Radiotherapy service.

Other Experience

Besides the training in Medical Physics provided in Ninewells Hospital, I also gained additional experience courtesy of NES. The annual training budget allocated to each trainee enabled me to attend events ranging from educational courses to international conferences. This made me aware of the advanced and varied work being done in the field of Medical Physics, exposing me to research being carried out around the world and even giving me the chance to present my own.

I have had the opportunity to develop my professional skills through attendance at various events organised by NES. The Healthcare Science Early Career Leadership Development Programme consisted of five, day-long sessions covering a range of skills necessary for career success and development. Through this I gained valuable expertise in leadership and team-working and developed communication and business skills. The interactive approach of these sessions, involving practical application of the theory, has given me a foundation of skills to equip me for the future, however my career may progress.

I also attended a Trainees’ Event held by NES. This was focused on the Common Core List, the common attributes which all healthcare scientists should possess. For this event I submitted a poster along with two other Medical Physics trainees, outlining how the training we had received in Dundee addressed these criteria. Our poster earned us an additional training bursary from NES, and highlighted how fortunate we have been with the support and structure available throughout our training in the various Medical Physics departments in NHS Tayside.

This combination of scientific and professional training has equipped me with the skills needed for working in the interesting and diverse field of Radiotherapy Physics. After four years of training, which have been both challenging and rewarding, I recently qualified as a Clinical Scientist. I am currently employed in a permanent post in the Radiotherapy department in Ninewells Hospital, where I’m still learning new things every day but enjoying not having any more portfolios and exams!  My training from NES will continue to be valuable post-qualification, helping me to face new challenges and further develop my abilities as a Clinical Scientist.