Comment: Unsung heroes who support those on the front line of modern medicine

WHEN PEOPLE think about science they may think about school laboratories, white-coated professors or flasks of bubbling liquid. But how many think of biomedical science? Probably not many, but I can guarantee that every person in Britain will, at some time in their lives, have benefited from the professional skills of a biomedical scientist.

The large majority of biomedical scientists work in hospital pathology laboratories analysing the 150 million patient samples that are sent to them each year. But they may also work in the National Blood Service, the Health Protection Agency, research laboratories and even in the medical corps of the armed forces. Biomedical scientists are nothing if not versatile although they are among the least recognised members of the healthcare workforce.

Biomedical scientists, like doctors and nurses, operate a vital 24-hour service. Whenever a major incident occurs, pathology is one of the first departments to be involved: large numbers of people may need large quantities of blood and it's the biomedical scientists that ensure that the right amount of the right blood reaches the right patient at the right time. Vital blood chemicals are measured to monitor patient condition and to detect signs of internal bleeding. Organ transplants could not take place without the support of the biomedical scientists and premature babies would have an even greater struggle to survive without the input from the laboratory.

Biomedical scientists are key players in disease diagnosis and monitoring, with 70 per cent of all diagnosis being based on pathology results. It may not be high profile, but biomedical science is a profession that definitely carries a feel-good factor.

Apart from the human aspects of the work, laboratories are fascinating places in which to work. Modern pathology laboratories are the hi-tech hub of a hospital with a large and uniquely talented workforce. Chemistry and haematology laboratories hum with the sound of analysers capable of processing thousands of samples a day, while microbiology has banks of incubators providing a perfect controlled environment for growing cultures of bacteria. Histology is for those who prefer a more hands-on approach to science. Every single tissue sample taken during surgery is sent to the histology laboratory for analysis. These specimens may range from tiny biopsies to whole organs or limbs. This may sound somewhat gory, but once processed and viewed down a microscope, the reward is obvious: the microscopic study of cells and tissues is like entering another world of fascinating shapes and patterns - definitely the option for the scientist with art at heart.

Science is constantly changing and developing and biomedical science is no exception. As healthcare moves from the traditional hospital environment into the community, pathology is moving too. Biomedical scientists are now increasingly found working with general practitioners in surgeries and community clinics helping to provide a diagnostic service to patients for a range of conditions. There are also opportunities to teach and train other staff groups such as nurses to perform simple tests in clinics and surgeries or to move roles within healthcare into management.

So why consider working in biomedical science? One good reason is that it offers an interesting and rewarding career. Another is that it offers a range of opportunities for career development. All biomedical scientists are graduates and many go on to do higher degrees. In addition there is a range of professional qualifications offered by the Institute of Biomedical Science, the professional body that works for, and with, biomedical scientist. These optional qualifications assist individuals who wish to develop advanced specialist skills in order to take on the most senior levels of responsibility. Most people will have heard of the "modern matrons" and nurse consultants, who are top-level individuals who have been enabled to progress beyond the traditional professional ceiling. Similar opportunities now exist for biomedical scientists with the appropriate qualifications and expertise who want to reach the top of their profession.

So next time there are frantic scenes of a hospital drama on our television screens or there is a news report of more casualties injured in another bomb explosion, remember there is a connection between the factual tragedy and the fictional entertainment: in both situations there are biomedical scientists working behind the scenes helping those on the front line to stay in front.

Edward Welsh is President of the Institute of Biomedical Science