What is Healthcare Science?
In the NHS, Healthcare Scientists help find out what is wrong with patients, advise on what needs to be done to help them and, in some disciplines, treat them too. Often they are also working to invent, develop and test new technologies and techniques to provide better ways to diagnose and manage medical problems. They also work to introduce new technologies and techniques (such as 3D printing) to the NHS so that they can be used to improve patient care.
In Scotland, there are around 6000 people working in Healthcare Science. They represent only around 5% of the total workforce but perform about 60 million laboratory tests and 730,000 physiological measurements every year and contribute to 80% of all clinical diagnoses. As scientific understanding and technologies advance, the work of Healthcare Scientists is constantly evolving and they are at the forefront of innovation in healthcare.
Healthcare scientists work in one of three different strands:
- Life sciences: Mainly laboratory based but now moving into the community with Point of Care Testing. Examples include investigating diseases through blood and tissue analysis, determining genetic make ups and researching new scientific treatments for cancer and other diseases.
- Physiological sciences: Predominantly work directly with patients, such as in audiology, carrying out a multitude of diagnostic patient tests. Examples include electrocardiograms (ECGs) to check how the heart is working, tests to assess the brain and peripheral nervous system function, and helping patients with sleep problems.
- Physical sciences and biomedical engineering: Maintain and manage medical equipment (such as MRI and ultrasound scanners, x-ray machines, drug delivery systems and patient monitors), provide diagnostic and treatment planning expertise and design artificial limbs and body parts (e.g. for facial reconstruction). In some areas, such as rehabilitation engineering (as here at the SMART Centre) they assess patients and prescribe assistive technology equipment.
Healthcare Science at the SMART Centre
We have two groups of Healthcare Scientists here at the SMART Centre:
- Clinical Scientists (also known as Bioengineers) conduct assessments, prescribe and design bespoke medical devices for several services including the Electronic Assistive Technology (EAT) Service, the Special Needs Design Service and the Wheelchair and Seating Service. They also provided scientific support, including risk assessment, for other SMART Services, such as the Gait Lab, and are involved in healthcare improvement projects and conduct research and development.
- Healthcare Technologists (also known as Technicians) assemble, manufacture and repair equipment for all the SMART Services that provide medical devices, including Prosthetics and Orthotics.
Review of the Year
The Healthcare Scientists at the SMART Centre have been involved in a multitude of activities over the past year; just a few of these are highlighted here.
To mark Healthcare Science Week 2014 an exhibition of curiosities spanning the 50 year history of clinical bioengineering in Edinburgh was held on 17th March. The rarely seen collection of photographs, books, medical devices and other objects from 1963 to the present day offered a unique insight into the development of bioengineering in Edinburgh. A looped slideshow covered the origins of the service to design and provide upper limb prostheses for the children born with limb abnormalities as a result of the drug Thalidomide, the Simpson-Edinburgh Airbed, the development of the world’s first complete powered electrical arm prosthesis and many other pioneering innovations. There were also many original photographic slides for people to view at their leisure. The exhibition was organised by Michael Dolan. The exhibition proved so popular that it overran by an hour and a half.
In June 2014, James Hollington was named as this year’s ‘Scottish Healthcare Science Rising Star’ in recognition of his efforts to improve services and for his professional activities to advance the field and promote healthcare science.
Also in June 2014, it was announced that David Gow was to be awarded a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in recognition of his contribution to upper limb prosthetics.
In November 2014, Susan Hillman was awarded the prize for best presentation at the National Training Event for NHS Scotland Wheelchair and Special Seating Services. Her presentation was on ‘Objective comparative postural measurement’ and was based on research she undertook with James Hollington.
In February 2015, the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) issued at leaflet and poster on ‘Improving mobility with gait analysis’ that was co-authur by Jennifer Walsh. Jennifer also organised a meeting on ‘Wheelchair cushions and materials of manufacture’ that was held in York on 4th February. This work was under the umbrella of IPEM’s The Rehabilitation and Biomechanics Special Interest Group (REBSIG) which Jennifer co-chairs.
Also in February 2015, one of the eight stamps issued by the Royal Mail on to celebrate ‘Inventive Britain‘ features the i-Limb bionic hand (shown below) that was based on the research and development carried out by the SMART Centre’s healthcare scientists and technologists, led by David Gow. Read the BBC’s report here. Please note that there is an error in the Royal Mail’s background details – David Gow has been an NHS employee throughout the development of the hand.
In March 2015, Graham Henderson presented a poster at the prestigious SET for Britain event at the Houses of Parliament (picture above). His poster was on ‘Controlling a powered wheelchair using a mass market imagining technology’ and was based on research he undertook with Michael Dolan and Colin Geggie.
Want to find out more?
You can discover more about Healthcare Science and Healthcare Scientists by checking out the following websites and documents.
NHS Careers has a whole section of its website devoted to Healthcare Science. They also have an informative factsheet on ‘Careers in Healthcare Science’ that includes a case study on a clinical engineering trainee on page 15.
Many Healthcare Scientists (including the SMART Centre’s Bioengineers) are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). The HCPC have a register of professionals that meet their standards for training, professional skills and behaviour that can be checked by members of the public. They also regulate paramedics, radiographers, therapists and many other professions.
In Scotland, the training and education of healthcare scientists is supported by NHS Education Scotland, which aims to ensure that there is a sustainable, fit-for-purpose NHS workforce, and have a section of their website devoted to Healthcare Science.
The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine has produced two ‘Making a Difference’ films on careers in physics and engineering careers in medicine. They have also published a series of leaflets and posters on the ’The Science and the Scientists’ covering gait analysis, cancer radiation treatment, disease diagnoses with radioactivity and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). More are planned.
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Written & compiled by Dr Michael J Dolan, SMART Centre, NHS Lothian, Edinburgh.
First published 13th March 2015. Last updated 13th March 2015. Version 1.0.