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Springpod’s Spotlight: Careers in Healthcare Science

Doctor, Nurse, Physio, Midwife, Paramedic. These are a few roles in healthcare that students are bound to be familiar with – they may even be considering training in one of these professions. What they probably don’t know is that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to medicine and healthcare; an industry that is full of less-known careers and hidden gems.

In this blog, we’re taking to the keyboard for the first in our new series Springpod’s Spotlight. A series where we don our inspector cloak armed with a magnifying glass to dive into the depths of something within the STEM world with the mission of challenging myths and shedding some light on the unknown. This post is all about healthcare science – an area that makes up 5% of the total NHS workforce – that’s 50,000 people. Using their technical and scientific knowledge, they play a vital role in the diagnosis and prevention of disease. A staggering 80% of clinical decisions are made with their help. Healthcare science staff are also at the forefront of improving the treatment, rehabilitation and care of patients. Simply put, doctors could not do their job without their support.

Even if your students have a rough idea what healthcare science is all about, the chances are they’ll have some misconceptions. Here are five myths that we are going to help you bust:

  1. “Yawn! Healthcare science staff don’t save lives like doctors and nurses.”
  2. “I’d be stuck in a lab on my own.”
  3. “You have to be a high achiever – a proper science geek.”
  4. “I want to get a job and earn money – university isn’t for me.”
  5. “I don’t want to work be stuck in a hospital for my whole career.”

So what do healthcare science staff do? There are over 50 specialisms split into four broad career areas.

Physiological sciences

Working as part of medical or surgical teams, those working in this area of healthcare science often have direct contact with patients. Using advanced equipment and techniques, they examine the function of different organs or systems in the body.

The physiological sciences are split into cardiovascular, respiratory & sleep sciences and neurosensory sciences.

Students could find themselves:

  • checking the equipment used to keep patients’ heart and lungs working during complex operations
  • taking electrocardiograms (ECGs)
  • setting up life support systems for those in critical care
  • monitoring patients with sleep disorders
  • assessing the hearing of newborn babies
  • investigating patients’ nervous systems to diagnose conditions such as epilepsy, MS or dementia

Life sciences

Healthcare science staff within the life sciences spend most of their time in hospital pathology labs, but may also work on wards or in the community. They play an important role in investigating disease, e.g. by analysing samples from patients to help doctors with diagnoses and treatment options.

Within the life sciences, your students would specialise in blood, cellular, infection or genomic sciences.

Your students could be:

  • investigating the body’s response to drugs
  • finding the right blood type for patients having emergency surgery
  • helping to prevent cancer by screening cervical samples
  • preparing tissue for bone marrow transplants
  • improving IVF fertility techniques
  • counselling people with an inherited genetic predisposition to disease
  • working on the control of epidemics
  • assisting with post-mortems and supporting bereaved relatives.

Physical sciences and clinical engineering

Working closely with other clinical teams and sometimes having direct contact with patients, those employed in this area of healthcare science develop new technology and techniques to measure and record what is happening in the body, diagnose disease and treat patients. Staff may also be involved in the purchase, calibration, maintenance and safe use of complex machinery. Some help design artificial body parts.

This area of work is split into the specialisms of medical physics; clinical pharmaceutical sciences; reconstructive sciences; and clinical engineering.

If your students work in this area of healthcare science, they could be:

  • calculating the right doses of radiation to treat cancer patients
  • involved with proton beam therapy – a cutting-edge treatment soon to be available on the NHS
  • taking clinical photographs to monitor patients’ progress
  • helping to reconstruct the faces of patients with disfigurements
  • working with disabled people to customise assistive technology
  • maintaining renal dialysis equipment.

Clinical bioinformatics

Working within a multidisciplinary team, those employed in bioinformatics develop and improve ways of acquiring, storing, organising and analysing biological data to assist patient care.

There are three fields within bioinformatics: genomics, health informatics and physical sciences.

Your students could find themselves:

  • supporting the 100,000 Genomes Project
  • manipulating and analysing ‘big data’
  • making sure that clinical data is used safely and efficiently
  • designing the hardware, software and algorithms used to process clinical information.

Which students could suit healthcare science?

As demonstrated, healthcare science really is a mixed bag and consequently fits the skillset a multitude of people types, calling for a range of interests and aptitudes. However, if we were forced to outline those best suited for a career in healthcare science, they are likely to be:

  • fascinated by innovations in science and technology
  • interested in subjects such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Computing and Design & technology
  • good at solving problems
  • keen to help others
  • able to communicate well and work in a team
  • methodical.

Where do healthcare science staff work?

Within the NHS, healthcare science staff work in hospital labs, clinics, operating theatres and on wards. Some are based in the community visiting patients at their homes.

Outside the NHS, there may be opportunities with organisations such as Public Health England or Public Health Wales, NHS Blood & Transplant, and with providers of healthcare services other than the NHS (e.g. private hospitals, charities and social enterprises). Students could also end up working for a manufacturer of medical products or a research institute.

How do students train in healthcare science?

There are entry routes and national training programmes at different levels, all involving work-based training and experience. It’s possible for students to progress through the various career pathways.

  • Healthcare Science Assistants and Associates work in supporting roles. They generally train whilst in employment, possibly through an apprenticeship. There are special training programmes for certain roles such as phlebotomists (sometimes known as vampires), newborn hearing screeners and cervical cytology screeners.
  • Healthcare Science Practitioners either train through the NHS Practitioner Training Programme, which involves studying for an accredited degree whilst spending around 50 weeks training in the NHS, or take a degree apprenticeship.
  • Healthcare Scientists can train through the NHS Scientist Training Programme – a postgraduate-level salaried work-based scheme. So if your students want to keep their options open, they can do a degree in another STEM subject and then decide whether healthcare science is for them.

To use the title ‘Biomedical Scientist’ or ‘Clinical Scientist’ students must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council having achieved an approved degree. For those who don’t necessarily want to work within the NHS, there are degrees in subjects such as medical engineering.

De-bunking those myths…

We hope that you are now in a better position to answer questions posed by your students when it comes to all things healthcare science… And with any luck we’ve busted those five myths with a proton pack.

  1. Healthcare science is far from boring! It saves lives, as well as improving treatment and patient care.
  2. Some healthcare science staff work in labs using state-of-the-art equipment, but most work with other specialist staff and many see patients, so it’s not a career for shrinking violets.
  3. With different levels of entry there are careers for students of all academic abilities.
  4. For some roles training is mainly in the workplace. You don’t have to go to uni.
  5. It’s possible to work in settings other than hospitals.

Alongside this, students should know that prospects pay and job security are pretty good too. The NHS has a clear career pathway – with continued learning it’s possible to become a Consultant Healthcare Scientist commanding a salary of over £100,000 at the highest level.

How to spread the word

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We get that we just unloaded a hefty amount of information on you, but we hope you found it insightful when it comes to understanding just how varied careers in healthcare science can be. So make yourselves a cup of tea and relax for a bit as you truly deserve it. But once you’re feeling up to it, try and implement this into your careers teaching to continue the necessary task of proving to the world just how eclectic the world of STEM is.

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Debbie Steel

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