Why healthcare scientists play a crucial role across all areas of the NHS

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The Independent Online

The variety and extent of science, engineering and technology used in the NHS is impressive. Almost any aspect of care given to patients depends on the work done by healthcare scientists. As a part of the whole healthcare team, they help to save lives and improve the quality of care for millions. Healthcare scientists play a key role in diagnosing illness, monitoring the progress of treatment and managing long-term care. They even help to create life.

There are more than 45 different professional areas of healthcare science in the NHS. Healthcare scientists work in a variety of places: in hospitals, the community, patients' homes and schools. Some have contact with patients in clinics or are part of surgical teams.

You could find yourself analysing blood or tissue samples to detect the cause of illness or using results from the human genome project to help diagnosis. Or you might work with patients in their homes, making sure their kidney dialysis machines are working properly.

There are people who design artificial limbs and body parts, those that test your hearing and even photographers and graphic artists. All these people are healthcare scientists who help to save lives and help patients have a better quality of life.

Healthcare science is divided into three areas:

Life sciences

Healthcare scientists who work in life sciences may work in hospital laboratories, in the community or for agencies such as the National Blood Service. Life sciences cover three broad areas:

Pathology Laboratories

Healthcare scientists investigate the cause of illness and how it progresses. They carry out tests on tissue, blood and other samples.

Genetics

Healthcare scientists in this field are usually based in specialist hospitals. They play an important role in understanding the genetic components of illnesses.

Embryology

A rapidly developing field. Healthcare scientists are key in creating life or providing other solutions to infertility. They are often based in specialist hospitals or clinics.

Physiological sciences

Healthcare scientists investigate the functioning of organ/body systems to diagnose abnormalities, and find ways to restore function and/or reduce the disabling consequences to the patient.

Scientists in physiological sciences use specialist equipment, advanced technologies and procedures to evaluate the functioning of different body systems, to direct and provide therapeutic intervention and long-term management and care. The majority work in hospital clinics, departments, as part of a medical or surgical team or in the community. Some visit patients in their homes or schools.

Clinical engineering and physical sciences

Healthcare scientists develop methods of measuring what is happening in the body, to devise new ways of diagnosing and treating disease and to ensure that equipment is functioning safely and effectively. Engineers may design artificial limbs; others help reconstruct the faces of people involved in accidents or who have been born with facial disfigurements. Healthcare scientists support and develop techniques such as ultrasound, radioactivity, radiation, magnetic resonance and clinical photography to explore or record the workings of the body for diagnosis, monitoring and treatment.

There are many ways you can start a career in healthcare science even if you don't have the right qualifications. This could be with on-the-job training or further education to get the qualifications you need. You could start straight from school as a laboratory assistant or trainee. There are specific university courses in operating department practice, pharmacy and audiology. Other careers can be entered after a relevant science degree by starting in a training post which will lead to a specific post-graduate qualification and registration with the Health Professions Council.

As a healthcare scientist you can develop areas of specialist scientific expertise,take on management responsibility or combine both. You will be encouraged to continue your academic development, taking further vocational and post-graduate courses.

Whatever level you start at, you'll be providing an essential service as part of the whole healthcare team. Healthcare scientists from all the varying disciplines lead the development and application of scientific knowledge to healthcare within the NHS through research, and the practical applications of new ideas.

Healthcare science is dynamic and ever-changing, and whichever career you choose you'll find it rewarding, exciting and varied with lots of opportunities for stepping up the career ladder to success in science.

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