Life as a Healthcare Scientist

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I’ve worked as a Healthcare Scientist at Great Ormond Street Hospital Foundation Trust (London, UK) for over 14 years, but many people might not know what a Healthcare Scientist is.

In fact, as an official title, the term Healthcare Scientist hasn’t been in use for that long. In the past scientists within the different areas of healthcare all had their own professional titles and were not considered as a single group.

So what is a Healthcare Scientist?

Healthcare Scientists fulfil a number of different roles, mainly within the NHS. There are nearly 50 specialties, which are split into physiological, physical and life sciences. Within physiological sciences most scientists work directly with patients in areas such as audiology and sleep science. Physical scientists have wide-ranging roles, from clinical engineering to medical imaging. I work within Life Sciences where most careers tend to be laboratory based.

As well as working within different specialities, Healthcare Scientists have different focuses that can be reflected in how they are registered with the profession registered, held by the Health and Care Professionals Council. As a Clinical Scientist, my focus is on being the interface between clinical teams and the laboratory. Biomedical Scientists however tend to have a laboratory focus and usually have entrance to the profession via an accredited undergraduate degree (https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/job-profiles/biomedical-scientist).


What is the job of a Clinical Scientist in Infection Prevention and Control like?

The great thing about my job is that every day is different. I work as part of a multi-professional team consisting of nurses and doctors and I liaise with other scientists every day. Unlike many Healthcare Scientists within life sciences, my job has a lot of patient facing components and broadly has three main components: clinical work, research and education.

My clinical work involves both responding to cross transmission of infection and implementing national policies on their control. All of the research I do is targeted at making the clinical part of my role more effective. How can we intervene differently? Are there new scientific techniques we could be using? How can we establish an evidence base for what we are currently doing? Finally, a large part of my role is being involved in education as changing practice doesn’t work if you don’t bring people with you!

How did I get here?

I came to my current post via a very circuitous route. A lot of people ask me when I teach whether I always knew I wanted to be a scientist and I answer honestly that, as a child, I always wanted to be an actress. So how did I end up in what I now know to be the best job in the world?

I started my scientific career by reading Zoology at Liverpool University (UK). I loved the subject but when I got to the end of my undergraduate degree I didn’t really know what to do next. I loved the theoretical aspects but I really didn’t see how I could make a difference using what I’d learnt. When I graduated I had therefore thought that science was behind me and, despite reservations, I would be forced to settle for an office job. Instead I was offered the opportunity to undertake an MRes in BioPhysics.

The most useful thing to say about this was that I hadn’t studied physics since GCSE and it is a perfect example of why you should say yes to all opportunities offered to you, no matter how scary. During my MRes I undertook a dissertation on the application of nanoparticles to catheter surfaces to prevent urinary tract infections in spinal injury patients. It was this project that changed my view of science entirely and put me on the path to where I am now.

I always loved studying science but I had never before found a way to relate it to what I knew I wanted to do as a career, which was to make a difference, and obviously to win an Oscar! I suddenly realised there was an area of science I could work in where I could use science to make a difference for patients – not in 20 years, but in a relatively short time frame.

As I was finishing my MRes a friend showed me a job advert for a Trainee Clinical Scientist in Microbiology and I realised that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. Luckily, they gave me the post.

What training do you have to undertake?

You can probably tell I did not end up as a Healthcare Scientist as part of some grand career plan. However, once I had found my career, I was prepared to work hard to succeed and it is true that that succeeding as a Healthcare Scientist does require commitment. For me getting the job was the start of 12 years of training to enable me to get Fellowship of the Royal College of Pathologists (FRCPath – my clinical qualification), a PhD (my scientific qualification) and a post graduate certificate in education (my education qualification). It is the combination of these three that enables me to do the job that I now have.

For those entering the training program now, the route to being a Clinical Scientist is much more defined with two training programmes, the Scientist Training Programme (STP); which takes you through to the end of Clinical Scientist training and the Higher Specialist Scientist Training (HSST) programme, which takes you through to completion of a taught doctorate and FRCPath. These two programs can be taken consecutively and all the information is available at http://www.nshcs.hee.nhs.uk/join-programme/nhs-scientist-training-programme and https://www.nshcs.hee.nhs.uk/current-hsst/nhs-higher-specialist-scientific-training.

Top tips for becoming a Healthcare Scientist

  • Find someone to visit, have a chat and see if it might be the career for you
  • There are so many disciplines in Healthcare Science and no two job roles are the same. Think about what excites you about science and then find the role that makes you feel the same way
  • To get onto the training schemes you really need to have been to visit a hospital or spent a week or two shadowing in a lab. When you find your Healthcare Scientist to visit remember to discuss the possibility of having a placement.

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