The good and sample life

Biomedical scientists use their analytical skills in a wide range of disciplines to prevent disease and save lives, says Kate Hilpern

Ever wondered what happens when you have a medical sample taken? Although doctors and nurses are the ones who take them, it is the biomedical scientists behind the scenes who analyse all tissue samples and bodily fluids. Without this group of professionals, front-line medical experts would not be able to diagnose or treat their patients effectively. This goes for problems ranging from food poisoning through to hepatitis and HIV. In short, biomedical scientists have a fundamental part to play in both preventing illness and saving lives.

The Institute of Biomedical Science describes the discipline as the "engine room" of modern medicine, pointing out that few hospitals would be able to function without their services. "But while most - that is, around 15,000 - biomedical scientists work in laboratories of NHS hospitals, there are a great many other exciting career options," says Edward Welsh, President of the Institute. "Some biomedical scientists use the latest DNA profiling and forensic techniques to help catch criminals. And a growing number work for the National Blood Authority, which provides support to hospital blood banks and the Blood Transfusion Service."

Other biomedical scientists are employed by the Health Protection Agency, which carries out research and seeks to improve health through the diagnosis, prevention and control of infections and communicable diseases. Meanwhile, a new challenge for biomedical scientists is the primary care setting, where they are increasingly involved in the management and delivery of laboratory tests to GPs.

You may even decide to work with animals, with many biomedical scientists employed by the veterinary service. Alternative options include working for the Health and Safety Executive, university laboratories, pharmaceutical and product manufacturers, the Armed Forces or government departments. "Regardless of your employer and whether you opt for a role in specialised laboratory work, management, research or education, you'll be working in a highly dynamic area," says Welsh.

Other rewards of the profession include the opportunity to work abroad, he says. "There have always been plenty of biomedical scientists who are keen to get involved in international healthcare projects in hospitals, schools and universities. The World Health Organisation and Voluntary Services Overseas are two such employers."

The fact that the work of biomedical scientists is at the forefront of technology is a further attraction, Welsh says. "The work is much less routine than it used to be, particularly in NHS laboratories, largely thanks to very sophisticated analysers. They look a bit like giant train sets and the specimens get put on this automated system, removing a lot of the need for human intervention. The scientist works with the results."

Microbiologist Jennifer Johnson points out that in her specialty, modern technology also helps patients. "The traditional method of analysis involves taking the patient specimen and culturing it in order to identify bacteria that grows. But the more modern molecular method, which is becoming increasingly popular, involves looking for specific DNA within the specimen or bacteria. It is at the cutting edge of technology and is much quicker at producing results. Tuberculosis, for example, is now diagnosed in a molecular way because it takes two days, as opposed to 12 weeks using the traditional method."

Like many branches of the health service, however, biomedical scientists are in short supply and, according to the Institute, it's a serious problem. "One of the major things putting people off this career has been the salary," explains Eddie Welsh. "Until a few years ago, a pre-registration graduate was paid poorly even by NHS standards. But upon registration, a biomedical scientist will now earn a minimum of pounds 17,500 before local allowances and the Government is currently reviewing all NHS salaries." More good news is that at the top end of the profession, advanced practitioners can earn well in excess of pounds 50,000.

Another problem facing recruiters is that science doesn't tend to be seen as a sexy career option, and furthermore, many young people haven't even heard of biomedical science. "Myself and colleagues are increasingly attending careers conventions in an attempt to get the discipline better known, but we're still looking for solutions about how to attract people," says Welsh.

For those that have heard of it, there are some myths that don't help, he says. "For example, people often think of biomedical scientists as working alone in dark and dingy labs. In fact, today's biomedical scientists are more likely to be found in modern, bright surroundings using the latest state-of-the-art equipment and at the heart of teams of various medical professionals."

In addition, some people tend to think of biomedical scientists as little more than technicians. "The reality is that modern pathology and biomedical laboratory work involves complex and diverse investigations requiring an in-depth scientific knowledge of anatomy, physiology and pathology," says Welsh. "So, like for many other professions, a biomedical scientist will need to complete a university degree course."

Ideally, you'll have a BSc in biomedical science at a university accredited by the Institute. Myra Wilkinson, principal lecturer in biomedical science at Portsmouth University, points out that courses can usually be taken part-time or full-time and that the make-up of students is diverse. "We get a lot of people coming straight from A-levels, but mature students also do the course. I have quite a few at the moment - some who are already working in the field at a lower level and some who don't work at all. The gender and ethnicity mix is reasonably healthy too."

Other graduates with science degrees containing the principal subjects of, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry, immunology and microbiology may also enter the profession. But they will need to "top up" their degrees with additional modules that are an integral part of accredited biomedical science degree courses.

Either as part of your degree course or once you have graduated, you will need a period of in-service training in order to acquire the practical skills required to fulfil the legal obligation that all biomedical scientists working in the health service must, like nurses, be registered. Once that process is complete, entrants can go on to specialise in one of eight key laboratory disciplines and work their way up the career ladder, with the prospect of becoming a chartered scientist, some eventually acquiring biomedical scientist consultant posts.

`You need to be patient and methodical'

Marilyn Symonds is a clinical cytologist at Stoke Mandeville Hospital

I WAS one of the first people to pass the advanced practice certificate in cervical cytology, which I did three years ago. There are about 50 of us in the country now, whose level is equivalent to NHS consultants. The fact that people such as me can reach this level is fantastic news for people entering biomedical science today. It shows how much stronger the career pathway is.

About 50 per cent of my time is spent actually diagnosing abnormalities in cervical smears. The other half is spent on the local cervical screening programme in North Buckinghamshire. That entails four main strands. First, I liaise with the people who invite women to come and have a smear - for example, about the recently announced changes in intervals at which women are expected to have one.

The second part of the job involves me training the practice nurses who take the smears. And the third part involves making sure that women with abnormal smears are followed up and receive the right treatment - also that the clinics they go to are run properly. Finally, I speak to the general public about any queries they have around cervical screening.

It's a much broader role than biomedical scientists used to get involved in. Discussing the management of patients, for example, is something very new to biomedical science. It's very rewarding because you feel you are really doing something through being such an important part of the clinical management team.

In cervical cytology, everything stood still for many years. But during the last two years, there have been huge changes and the future is very exciting. New methods to discover abnormalities are evolving all the time.

You need to be patient and methodical to get on in a role like mine. Attention to detail is also key. You need to be quite a calm person, the kind that is able to sit down quietly and not be distracted.

It frustrates me that biomedical science is still seen by many as a backroom profession. Within a hospital environment, very few of the general public know about the important role we play in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. But if you follow a patient pathway, virtually nothing is done without the help of someone working in biomedical science.

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