We still have a Victorian view of those who choose a career in health and think just of being a doctor or a nurse as they're the people we see when we visit our GP or go into a hospital. But there is very much another professional group to choose if your choice is to help people with illness retain their health or at least manage their condition.
Healthcare scientists are a foundation of the NHS, highly skilled people whose expertise affects almost every patient that comes through a hospital door. In hospital-based television shows healthcare scientists are referred to as 'the lab', where all test results are sent but of course in reality they play a much more vital role.
These scientists contribute to over 80% of diagnoses in the UK, working to test blood, genes and toxins. For example, a Clinical Microbiologist assesses bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections and works to prevent the spread of disease. Outside of labs, Medical Physicists, often trained engineers and physicists, work to develop techniques that show conditions inside of the body through use of X-rays, nuclear medicine with radioactive drugs and gamma cameras and ultrasound scanning.
Healthcare scientists aren't however found just in labs. Hearing Therapists help patients who have hearing difficulties adjust to life through instruction in lip reading, help with hearing devices and counselling. Clinical Embryologists work to assess fertility levels of individuals and facilitate IVF treatment for couples facing difficulty conceiving.
Traditionally these professions have not been represented even within hospitals; NHS Trusts senior teams will typically have a Medical Director and a Chief Nursing Officer, but rarely Chief Scientific Officers. I believe this is something that must be changed which is why I am very proud to be the first chair of the newly created Council of Healthcare Science in Higher Education.
As a representative body for academic healthcare science we will work to promote a sense of identity for the subjects and disciplines that underpin the profession, encourage and work with students looking towards a healthcare scientist career path and advise government on issues affecting the University sector. As well as being Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University, I am a Professor of Biomedicine and started out my career in the Blood Transfusion Service so I know how important and under-represented this sector currently is.
I believe healthcare scientists work in the most cutting edge and creative part of human science as applied to medicine. They sit at the forefront of the technical innovations that have moved medicine so drastically on from the Victorian era. Alexander Fleming, discoverer of Penicillin was for instance a Virologist and Biomedical Scientist; one of the pioneers of IVF, Professor Robert Winston, is an Embryologist and Geneticist.
At the cutting edge of current research, the scientists studying stem-cell research are making it possible to 'grow' new tissues are healthcare scientists - so too are those working on the development of novel targeted cancer drugs. These are the people that, as the scientific workforce of the NHS, are pushing the boundaries of 21st century healthcare helping to improve patient care and clinical outcomes. Yet the perception remains that healthcare is a world of doctors and nurses. So, let's change that now - it's about time the world recognised Healthcare Scientists.
Professor Wendy Purcell is the Vice-Chancellor of Plymouth University, including the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, and Chair of the newly created Council of Healthcare Science in Higher Education.
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