The NHS employs over 50,000 Healthcare Scientists , yet many NHS staff are unaware that Healthcare Science is itself a professional group, distinct from Allied Health Professionals. Our professional identity can often be so lacking that many are unaware they are healthcare scientists themselves! This lack of cohesion can be partly attributed to the highly specialist nature of our work – covering more than 50 specialisms , including patient-facing roles and behind-the-scenes roles in laboratories, workshops and offices, with little daily interaction between specialisms. The broad range of entry routes and job titles further compound this problem.
Visible leadership is urgently needed to raise the profile of healthcare science and push the boundaries of science to advance healthcare. The landmark 100,000 Genomes Project was led by NHS Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Dame Sue Hill, and healthcare scientists played vital roles in the COVID-19 response, from developing and scaling-up diagnostic testing to rapidly acquiring, testing and rolling out essential equipment such as ventilators for critical care wards. However, despite successes such as these, senior healthcare science roles are often absent at both organisation and system level. This highlights the need for profession-agnostic leadership development programmes, such as the FMLM Regional Clinical Fellowship Scheme, which provides an opportunity for Healthcare Scientists to recognise our true value in the leadership space.
Despite relatively small workforce numbers, healthcare scientists are involved in 80% of diagnoses . Recognising the essential contribution of this underrepresented professional group, the diagnostics team in NHSE London specifically sought out the only healthcare scientist from the first regional fellow cohort. Whilst initial projects had an operational focus with minimal requirement for specialist healthcare science input, they did provide opportunities to develop and apply broader systems leadership skills along with the satisfaction of seeing projects through to completion – such as establishing ‘Share and Learn’ webinars and producing recommendations for improving access to interventional radiology services across the region.
National priorities that often seem barely visible in our clinical roles are driving daily work at regional level. Working closely with clinical and operational staff at system level provided a fresh perspective, revealing how national agendas were being implemented in clinical services. Witnessing how national priorities change rapidly, driven by political priorities and the emerging phases of the pandemic, was eye-opening. The need to shift focus from diagnostics recovery to elective recovery, coinciding with the rapid onset of the Omicron wave, demonstrated the ability of NHS regional teams to adapt and respond to changing priorities – highlighting an important leadership lesson in flexibility and resilience.
The transition from pandemic response to sustainable transformation of diagnostic services prompted the team to take stock and identify neglected opportunities for improvement. This made space for a strategic project that utilised specialist knowledge of healthcare science: exploring the healthcare science workforce challenges and needs, focusing on the new Community Diagnostic Centres that are being established in response to the Richards Review. This provided opportunities to educate colleagues about healthcare science, to liaise with scientists from different specialisms to understand the challenges they face, to work closely with HEE to explore training routes, and to collaborate with human factors specialists to identify opportunities to improve efficiency and experience for staff and patients. This project demonstrated the value of embedding clinical staff in regional teams – my specialist knowledge shaped the project, helping to bridge the gap between strategic proposals and the realities of clinical practice.
These varied projects provided a rich experience which utilised and developed a broad range of skills, from operational project management to strategic systems thinking. Many scientific skills translate well to system-level projects – an objective approach, exploring the evidence base, working with data, quality improvement, cross-disciplinary working, risk management, innovation and project management, to name a few. Recognising these transferrable skills and gaining a systems perspective reveals a world of opportunity for healthcare scientists whose career progression options are unclear due to their highly specialised roles and lack of visible role models. The fellowship provides an invaluable opportunity for healthcare scientists to apply these transferrable skills to projects outside of their specialism and to develop a true appreciation of the value they can offer the wider healthcare system, whilst recognising their potential to make unique contributions as leaders.
As the solo healthcare scientist in the inaugural cohort of regional fellows, the opportunity to forge connections with colleagues on the national Chief Scientific Officer’s Clinical Fellow Scheme was invaluable. Likewise, connecting with Chief Sustainability Officer’s fellows provided opportunities to explore our collective desire to tackle the climate emergency.
The multi-professional aspect of the regional scheme has also been a true highlight; gaining a newfound appreciation for the unique contributions of different professions, collaborating with others on projects that utilise our specialist knowledge and interests, and supporting each other through the inevitable rollercoaster that comes with stepping outside our comfort zones.
The privilege of working with inspiring mentors and transformational coaches has been invaluable. The concept of “networking” used to fill many of us with dread, but our experiences have enabled us to realise the power of a strong professional network that will both support and constructively challenge us. Surrounding ourselves with colleagues who share our values, yet bring different skills and perspectives, creates the ideal environment for us to flourish as leaders.
The regional scheme has enabled us to recognise and realise our potential. Whilst many colleagues wrestle with the decision to move away from clinical work, I feel ready to pivot my career away from the hospital and into system-level transformation; however, healthcare science remains central to my professional identify. I am inspired by NHSE London’s recent appointment of a healthcare scientist into a Clinical Director role, demonstrating that senior leadership roles can indeed be profession agnostic. Not only do such appointments align with the NHS’s commitment to improve professional diversity in senior leadership, but they also provide aspirational role models to fellow healthcare scientists exploring new routes into leadership, whilst simultaneously having a positive impact on patient care.
- NHS England, “What is healthcare science?,” [Online]. Available: https://www.england.nhs.uk/healthcare-science/what/. [Accessed 13th October 2022]
With thanks to Zoe Clarke, Kate Fenna and Eleanor Holden (Chief Scientific Officer’s Clinical Fellows 2021-2022) for their contributions to this article.
Rachael Andrews is a healthcare scientist specialising in clinical engineering. She holds professional registration as a Clinical Scientist and currently works as a Design and Innovation Engineer in the Clinical Engineering Innovation team at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust. In 2021, Rachael was recognised as a CSO WISE Aspiring Leader in Healthcare Science. Following her recent completion of the FMLM Regional Clinical Fellowship, Rachael is looking forward to joining South West London Integrated Care Board as a Transformation Programme Manager for Prevention and Long Term Conditions. Twitter: @RachaelHAndrews
Declaration of interests
I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: none.