Healthcare Sciences Week (9-18 March) celebrates the work of healthcare science professionals and highlights the difference they make to patients’ lives. But what, exactly, is a healthcare scientist? Penny Murphy, who leads the Clinical Physiology Programme at St George’s, University of London explains.

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“What many people may not realise is that ‘healthcare’ in this context refers to the teams of scientists who work within the NHS in academically demanding scientific roles. Some are based in a laboratory analysing patient samples and diagnosing conditions. Others work with the technology that underpins patient care, either developing new medical technology or ensuring existing equipment is functioning well. Many work directly with patients.

“They are trained through a family of Healthcare Science BSc (hons) degrees, each of which deals with a specific specialism. At St George’s, through our Healthcare Science degree, we train students in two patient-facing specialisms – respiratory/ sleep physiology and cardiac physiology. If you know of anyone who has been sent to hospital for investigation of a suspected cardiac, respiratory or sleep condition, then they will in all likelihood have been under the care of clinical physiologists in these disciplines. Some may even have been our graduates.

What is clinical physiology?

“Clinical physiologists are in the frontline of patient care within their specialist fields. They carry out a variety of routine but highly specialist diagnostic investigations on adult or paediatric patients, analyse and interpret the results, and report their conclusions to the consultants.

They are vital members of the teams that carry out many forms of treatment, and are responsible for long-term monitoring and management of patients with chronic disease. They are also expected to carry out clinical research and innovative practice – they are scientists, after all!

What does a cardiac physiologist do?

“To give an example of the range of activities that a cardiac physiologist will engage in, take a patient who presents to his GP with palpitations and dizzy spells. His GP suspects that he has an irregular heartbeat, and refers him to hospital for investigations. Cardiac physiologists will carry out a variety of tests to determine whether his cardiovascular system is the problem, for example recording the electrical activity that makes the heart beat, and using ultrasound to take moving images of heart structure and blood flow.

They are expert at uncovering even small and intermittent abnormalities and identifying the likely cause. On the basis of these results the patient may be sent for more invasive tests, such as cardiac electrophysiology, and ultimately fitted with a pacemaker. The physiologists will be key members of the patient care team, from diagnosis to life-long management.

What does a respiratory / sleep physiologist do?

“Respiratory / sleep physiologists again perform a wide variety of investigations, dealing with patients with different conditions. Take, for example, a man who is continually exhausted, lacking energy and falling asleep repeatedly during the day. He may even fall asleep while driving, or talking to you! His GP refers him for a sleep investigation. He may spend the night in the clinic, covered in electrodes and recording devices and sleeping in a nest of wires. Or the physiologists may fit and train him to use a portable device so he can make recordings in his own bed. In a case like this, the results may show that the patient stops breathing repeatedly while asleep.

On each occasion his blood oxygen levels plummet, his chest muscles fight to draw in a breath, and he wakes up – though he won’t remember this – before he starts breathing again. This may happen hundreds of times in a single night, ruining the quality of his sleep. He has obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition that can be treated with night-time respiratory support. The respiratory / sleep physiologists will identify the correct equipment and educate him to use it, and the result will be greatly improved general health and restoration of his quality of life.

How do you become a clinical physiologist?

“If you think that these sound like fascinating and challenging careers, then search for a BSc degree that is also an accredited Practitioner Training Programme in the right speciality. They are all called BSc (hons) Healthcare Science, with the speciality in brackets.

“What makes these degrees special is that they were developed according to strict NHS guidelines and are closely monitored by professional bodies. Students spend roughly half their time doing clinical workplace training, and so they immediately qualify on graduation for professional registration and clinical jobs at NHS band 5 level.

Training to be a clinical physiologist at St George’s

“St George’s, University of London runs a Healthcare Science BSc (hons) degree that trains both cardiac and respiratory / sleep physiologists. Students apply for a single programme with a common first year, then begin to follow one of the specialities.

“The programme has many advantages. For a start, we train both cardiac and respiratory / sleep physiologists and students can get a flavour of both specialisms before choosing their preference.
“We are the country’s only university dedicated to medicine and health sciences, so our students are surrounded by likeminded people. The specialist lectures, workshops, practicals and clinical workplace training are all designed, managed and to a large extent taught by our full-time team of clinically active physiologists. Finally, we are committed to providing our students with an authentic and rigorous research experience.

“The success of our graduates is evidence of how effective this is. Almost all find graduate-level employment or study very quickly, with many working as clinical physiologists in large, internationally recognised centres of excellence. They can look forward to a demanding and varied career, with clear promotion pathways and the satisfaction of helping to improve patients’ lives.”

Read more about our Healthcare Science (Physiological Sciences) BSc (hons) degree.