Physics has contributed so much to medicine that list-making is nearly impossible – there’s x-ray technology, microscopy, laser surgery and so much more. And the contributions will grow as the molecular mechanisms of disease are better understood and new technologies enable in vivo investigation of these molecular processes, according to a new series of five papers published online in The Lancet
The papers’ authors argue that investments in technology and education are essential for such innovations to flourish. Physicists have an increasingly vital part to play in the discovery of new diagnostic techniques and treatment modalities in an era of postgenomic medicine, they say, and the success of personalized medicine depends upon a different way of thinking in medical research and practice.
Medical physicists must be trained and educated if this potential is to be realized, and substantial investments will be necessary to enable this education. These will include ensuring the safe and effective implementation of new physics-based health technologies.
The opportunity that exists must not be wasted, the authors say. In the papers, they put forth the following recommendations for the advancement of physics and medicine:
Investment in research:
The physical sciences need sustained government commitment and investment if the full health dividend of physics-based research is to be achieved. Success in the life sciences depends upon success in the physical sciences. Many advances in medicine have depended upon discoveries in physics that have yielded unexpected spinoffs (MRI technology, for example). And who can say what medical benefits could accrue from the results of projects such as the Large Hadron Collider?
Physics – and its impact on research through, for example, systems science – should receive stronger recognition in the undergraduate medical curriculum and in postgraduate education if doctors of the future are to be literate in a new era of physics-based scientific and medical discovery. Universities also might consider more physics-oriented qualifications for entry into medicine, emphasizing quantitative and mathematical skills. A more numerate medical profession will be needed to take advantage of the full contribution physics will make to health care.
Multidisciplinary science for health:
There must be closer collaboration and integration between the physical and life sciences through a new model of interface science, in which multidisciplinary teams from both sectors work closely in a shared research environment (the experience of the Institute for Medical Science and Technology in Dundee, UK, has shown the benefits of this approach). At present, collaborations tend to be opportunistic or fortuitous, diminishing the contribution that physics research can make to human health and health care.
Physics in schools:
Every school should aspire to provide a high-quality physics education for its children. Young physicists must be nurtured to ensure a supply of talented scientists who can take advantage of the opportunities for health-related physics research in the future. Schools should declare and implement their passion for physics to foster the right environment for committed students of physics to develop.
The choice of medical physics as a career should be seen, promoted and recognized as a vocational discipline.
The individual papers in the series:
1) “Physics and medicine: a historical perspective,” by Stephen Keevil, Rayne Institute, St. Thomas’ Hospital, London; doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60282-1
2) “Diagnostic imaging,” by Peter Morris and Alan Perkins, University of Nottingham, UK; doi: 10.1016/ S0140-6736(12)60429-2
3) “The importance of physics to progress in medical treatment,” by Andreas Melzer, Sandy Cochran, Paul Prentice, Michael P MacDonald, Zhigang Wang and Alfred Cuschieri, University of Dundee, UK; doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60428-0
4) “Future medicine shaped by an interdisciplinary new biology,” by Paul O’Shea, University of Nottingham, UK; doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60476-0
5) “The importance of quantitative systemic thinking in medicine,” by Geoffrey B. West, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60281-5