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What does a Radiation Therapist do?

What does a Radiation Therapist do?
Photo: What does a Radiation Therapist do?
A radiation therapist is an Allied Health Professional who uses ionising radiation to treat disease, usually cancer.  A radiation therapist is also responsible for collecting relevant patient information and using this information to plan a patient’s treatment.  Sometimes a radiation therapist is called a therapeutic radiographer.

A radiation therapist will work under the guidance of a Radiation Oncologist, in a team of health professionals who care for and treat cancer patients.  They are usually assigned to work on a rotating basis in one of three main areas: simulation, planning and treatment.

Simulation involves the gathering of all relevant data to plan and treat the patient.  The radiation therapist will read through the patient’s notes and look at any tests or radiographic scans such as x-rays, CT and MRI the patient may have had, to determine where the tumour is located.  When the patient arrives, the radiation therapist will explain the process to the patient and answer any questions.  It is important the radiation therapist is empathetic, yet professional as it can be an emotional time for the patient and their family.
The radiation therapist will use a simulator (a machine similar to the treatment machine) or a CT scanner to gather the data that will be used for planning the patient’s treatment.  The patient lies in the same position they will be treated in.  This may involve the use of equipment such as a special thermo-plastic mask, or neck and knee rests to keep the patient as immobile as possible.

The radiation therapist draws marks onto the patient’s skin as an external indicator of where the treatment will be directed.  After the CT scan or simulation, these marks will be tattooed onto the patient in the form of small permanent dots, the size of a freckle.  The radiation therapist will document information such as the patient’s position, equipment used, where the tattoo dots are located and any relevant measurements.

Planning, or dosimetry is where the radiation therapist uses the data gathered during simulation to plan the patient’s treatment.  This is usually done on the computer.  The oncologist will indicate where the treatment needs to be delivered and what dose of radiation the patient will receive.  The radiation therapist is responsible for deciding the best way to aim the radiation at the cancer with the least effect on normal, or surrounding tissues.  The radiation therapist must also work to ensure that sensitive tissues such as the eyes, heart or rectum receive as small a dose as possible, to limit long-term side effects of the treatment.  The oncologist will approve the plan before the treatment starts.

When the patient arrives for treatment, the radiation therapist is responsible for ensuring the patient is treated accurately as well as providing them with emotional support.  Before a patient’s first treatment, the radiation therapist will check through all of the planning information and make sure all relevant equipment is in the treatment room.  The radiation therapist will explain the procedure to the patient and answer any questions.

They will align the tattoo dots that were placed during the simulation process with laser lights in the treatment room to ensure the patient is in the same position each day, as accuracy of treatment is very important.  The radiation therapist will operate the Linear Accelerator (treatment machine), which can be moved from inside the room, however the radiation dose will only be given once all staff are outside the treatment room.

Radiation therapists are responsible for supporting the patient throughout their treatment.  They must have compassion and strong interpersonal skills.  Part of their role is to listen to the emotional concerns and anxieties of the patient and refer them appropriately if needed.  The radiation therapist will also assess the patient’s reaction to treatment, providing advice on the side effects of treatment and methods of alleviating these.  Radiation therapists often develop close relationships with their patients, as they usually see them five days per week for between three and seven weeks.

Radiation therapists may hold extra responsibilities such as QA testing of the simulation and treatment machines or checking weekly patient x-rays for treatment accuracy.  Radiation therapists may be involved in co-ordinating clinical trials, or specialist groups to develop radiation techniques within their departments.  They may attend national and international conferences and study days and will be involved in ongoing education.

Radiation therapists usually work eight hours per day, five days per week.  They may be on-call during the weekends to treat emergency cases.  There is a good demand for radiation therapists within Australia and New Zealand, as well as overseas.

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