URI, R.I. Hospital to offer medical physics degree

Innovative 5-year dual degree program first in New England

KINGSTON, R.I. –December 21, 2010 –Students interested in physics and medicine will be able to combine disciplines to become medical physicists and enter an expanding field that offers multiple career opportunities and salaries that start with six figures.

The University of Rhode Island, at the urging of and collaboration with Rhode Island Hospital, will offer an innovative 5-year medical physics degree that combines a bachelor of science in physics with a master of science in medical physics. The 162-credit dual degree program, which will be launched September 2011, will be the first of its kind in New England and may well be the only 5-year program in the country.

Medical physics is an applied branch of physics concerned with the application of the concepts and methods of physics to the diagnosis and treatment of human disease. Currently there are only 26 other universities in the U.S. and Canada who offer accredited graduate medical physics programs.

There is a significant shortage of well-trained and qualified clinical medical physicists. And, with each passing year, the shortage becomes that much more severe. A glance at want ads this fall in The Washington Post shows that employers from 33 different states advertised more than 100 medical physicists positions. Starting salaries range from $82,600 to $135,000, and often include signing bonuses.

Why? Medical physicists are an important part of the radiation therapy caregiver team, working closely with the doctor (radiation oncologist), nurses, radiation therapists and medical dosimetrists.

The increased development and use of complex technology in radiation oncology and medical imaging requires skilled scientists. The use of radiation therapy in the U.S. is on the rise. Almost 1.1 million cancer patients underwent a course of radiation in 2009, up 15 percent from 2007. The increase may reflect the growth of cancer screening and early detection initiatives, along with the aging of the baby boomer generation.

Treating cancer is no longer one size fits all. “Cancer treatment is highly personalized and targeted,” says Yana Reshetnyak who with her husband Oleg Andreev, both URI associate professors of physics, research new ways to target and treat cancerous tumors.

“We’re very proud that URI leaders including President David M. Dooley, Provost Donald DeHayes, Vice-President for Research and Economic Development; Peter Alfonso, and Department of Physics Chair Jan Northby supported this program from the beginning to the final approval in a relatively short period of time,” said Andreev. “We are especially grateful to a former URI physics student for his generous donation to fund the development of the medical physics program. “We believe the biological and medical physics division will grow and bring great benefits to Rhode Island. The investment in medical physics is an investment in Rhode Island’s future and it is a good investment. “

The degree evolved through the couple’s collaborative work with Rhode Island Hospital’s Medical Physics Division of the Radiation Oncology Department.

“Medical physicists play a vital role on the radiation therapy care-giving team,” said Edward S. Sternick, medical physicist-in-chief in radiation oncology at Rhode Island Hospital. “They are responsible for testing the machines, such as CT scanners, to determine radiation output, as well as for calculating each patient’s radiation dosage. It is a highly specialized and growing field, and this new program will allow URI, the Brown Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital to take a leadership role in New England graduate medical education.”

Here’s how the program will works: Students will receive rigorous training in undergraduate and graduate physics courses as well as medical-physics courses. URI physics faculty, the Rhode Island Hospital-Brown Alpert Medical School faculty and staff at the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center at URI’s Narragansett Bay Campus, will teach classes.

Students will spend three years studying physics. At the end of their junior year, they will apply for the master’s program and, if accepted, they will spend the next two years taking medical physics courses. Upon completion of the program, students will enter a two-year residency program. Once they finish their residency, they can seek board certification.

Graduates of the program can find employment at hospitals and treatment centers, in private industry, or the government.

“The majority of medical physicists will focus on treatments, particularly of cancerous tumors, employing and developing different techniques,” explains Physics Professor Len Kahn. “Some will focus on the development of ways to get higher resolution and better definition with imaging devices in order to avoid unnecessary biopsies.”

“CT scanners, MRI scanners, linear accelerators – all these were developed by or with medical physicists,” says Sternick. “In fact, the Nobel Prize for Medicine has been awarded twice to American medical physicists.”

To find out more about the program, contact Physics Professor Len Kahn, 401.874.2053 or lkahn@uri.edu.

About Rhode Island Hospital

Founded in 1863, Rhode Island Hospital (www.rhodeislandhospital.org ) in Providence, RI, is a private, not-for-profit hospital and is the principal teaching hospital of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. A major trauma center for southeastern New England, the hospital is dedicated to being on the cutting edge of medicine and research. Many of its physicians are recognized as leaders in their respective fields of cancer, cardiology, diabetes, emergency medicine and trauma, neuroscience, orthopedics, pediatrics, radiation oncology and surgery. Rhode Island Hospital receives nearly $50 million each year in external research funding. It is home to Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the state’s only facility dedicated to pediatric care, which is ranked among the top 30 children’s hospitals in the country by Parents magazine. Rhode Island Hospital is a founding member of the Lifespan health system.

About the University of Rhode Island

The University of Rhode Island is known locally and worldwide for its innovative, big ideas, adaptive intelligence and breakthrough solutions to today’s puzzling problems. URI’s pioneering research extends the University’s influence well beyond its coastal borders, while its unique interdisciplinary courses provide its 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students with global opportunities in an intimate environment.