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Biomedical Scientists – Then and Now

As we continue our celebrations in this 70th year of the NHS, we talk to two people with a shared experience of biomedical science, albeit many years apart.

For former biomedical scientist Harry Cook, from Southbourne, the foundation of the NHS is a double celebration.

In 1948 when the NHS was created, Harry started his first job in the hospital labs at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the City of London.

It was the beginning of a 50-year career for Harry who retired in 1998 as Principal Biomedical Scientist, at West Middlesex University District Hospital in west London.

For him, the most dramatic change in the NHS has been the attitudes of staff and the hierarchy of the management structure in hospitals.

“Back then doctors were likened to God and nurses were regarded as their handmaidens. Doctors now see nurses as their colleagues, while nurses now have much more responsibility and many have specialist roles.”

Harry says there have also been major advances in the methods and equipment used in the pathology labs leading to more accurate diagnosis of diseases.

“Tests are now more complex and the equipment more sophisticated, particularly with the developments in technology. This has been particularly beneficial to workflow, as it’s enabled staff to deal with a greater volume of samples in a shorter period of time.

It was inevitable that Harry would work in the laboratory field. With a fascination of anything scientific there were a few times when his chemistry experiments as a child would end with a mini explosion in his bedroom at home.

“My mother would hear a dull boom from upstairs and made the sign of the cross after I had put a flame to hydrogen and there was a loud bang,” laughs Harry.

From both an employee and user of the NHS, Harry believes patients are now much better informed about their test results than they were in the early days of the NHS.

“Medical staff are now more willing to divulge the results of tests and what they mean whether the news is good or bad.”

Harry recalls that when the NHS was born there were few changes in the daily work routine of frontline staff, but that administration, HR and finance departments felt the impact. For most clinical staff however, it was business as usual.

“We all had the same pay and conditions and everything went on as before except people did not have to pay for their treatment. The biggest impact has been in the financial aspect which has now been given much more prominence than when the NHS was founded.”

Now in 2018, Alexandra Grainey, Cellular Pathology and Immunology Manager at the Royal Bournemouth Hospital (RBH), shares her experiences of what it’s like to work in pathology today.

The Cellular Pathology Team at RBH processes around 44,000 specimens a year and their workload is growing. The 50-strong team led by Alexandra, is comprised of consultants, biomedical scientists, medical laboratory assistants and support staff, who work behind the scenes providing the critical details for the doctors and specialists to determine a patient’s diagnosis. If you ever had a blood test, cervical smear or tissue biopsy, a biomedical scientist will have been involved in your care. Specimens are processed and analysed and your pathology results are passed on to your own consultant or GP.

Around 80% of all patients at RBH samples processed by pathology, which prides itself in having UKAS accreditation, equivalent to the gold standard in quality and methods control.

The fast moving department is a hive of industry with each section responsible for a specific procedure. Each procedure is carefully checked and re-checked to ensure errors, however minor, are kept to a minimum.

Alexandra has been with RBH for the last 14 years and has had a passion for pathology ever since she started her career as a trainee biomedical scientist.

“I love the process of continual discovery that pathology provides. Biomedical scientists are involved in preventing, diagnosing, treating and monitoring diseases to keep people as healthy as possible. I have always had a fascination for cellular pathology; the art of taking human tissue and processing it to make a microscope slide and ultimately a diagnosis. With a wide and endless variety in the work, no two days are the same. It’s a pressurised environment and we are always dealing with queries from service users which is as it should be. We have to get the patient’s results right first time and on time. There is no room for error.”

Alexandra says the major changes she has seen since she joined the NHS has been the number of requests, advances in new techniques and technologies, and the frequency of external inspections. In terms of volume, the number of diagnosed cancer cases is growing. Over 360,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with cancer within the last two years, at an average of more than 800 cases per day. Early diagnosis is essential for treating cancer. Cancer survival rates are improving and have doubled in the last 40 years.

She says that while the workload, as elsewhere in the NHS, has increased, and the team has some of the latest technology to assist them, it is still labour intensive and relies on the scrutiny, scientific judgement and expertise of the staff. Staff undergo rigorous ongoing training to ensure they are keeping abreast of current trends and advances in their specialities.

Alexandra’s view is that every patient is somebody’s friend, family member or neighbour and treats samples as such. At each stage of testing, the patient’s details are checked and re-checked and specimen turnaround times are constantly monitored to ensure patients receive their results in a timely manner. “The team are extremely innovative, proactive and committed. We believe we are at the cutting edge of science and in the NHS’s 70th year there are so many exciting discoveries and developments to come in pathology examination.”

*Article written by Stephen Feldman