As a healthcare scientist working in physiological sciences, you'll examine the functioning of organs and body systems in order to diagnose abnormalities and disease
You'll use specialised equipment and techniques to measure, for example, the functioning of hearing and balance, or of organs such as the heart, lungs and brain in patients who may be seriously ill or have long-term health problems.
You'll also record and report the physiological data you obtain to help diagnose disease, plan treatment and the management of long-term care, and measure the effects of previous treatment. You'll often work in hospitals, although there are also opportunities to work in the community visiting patients.
To work as a healthcare scientist, you must be registered as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).
Types of work
The areas covered by physiological sciences are:
- cardiac science
- critical care science
- gastrointestinal physiology
- ophthalmic and vision science
- respiratory and sleep sciences
- urodynamic science
- vascular science.
Job titles and responsibilities will vary according to your specialist area.
Your duties depend on the area in which you choose to specialise. However, in general you're likely to:
- use specialised equipment to perform clinical physiological tests
- record and analyse physiological data from equipment in order to help medical staff diagnose or manage conditions
- report physiological data to help diagnose disease, identify treatment regimes and measure the effects of treatment
- measure the functions of a patient's body, such as digestion or breathing
- get patients and equipment into correct locations and positions for monitoring
- give assistance and reassurance to patients during their medical tests and/or operations
- monitor patients' conditions and provide them with relevant information and instructions to help educate them about their care
- maintain and calibrate equipment, including therapeutic and diagnostic equipment used in patients' homes
- ensure the safe use of expensive and complex equipment and any related substances
- report equipment faults and ensure that appropriate levels of medical consumables are maintained
- teach, train or supervise trainee healthcare scientists and other members of the healthcare team
- carry out research in addition to carrying out diagnostic tests
- undertake management tasks where you may oversee resources, such as staffing, budgets or equipment.
- Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee healthcare scientists are usually employed at Band 6, starting at around £26,000.
- Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 (£37,570 to £43,772).
- Salaries for senior and consultant clinical scientists range from £44,606 (Band 8) to £103,860 (top of Band 9), depending on your experience, responsibilities and training.
Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.
Salary levels for healthcare scientists working for private companies, universities, government bodies and other organisations may vary.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work a 37.5 hour week, although you may be required to work a shift pattern, including weekends and nights.
Part-time work is available.
What to expect
- Work is mostly hospital-based, either in operating theatres, in outpatient departments and clinics or on the wards. Some hospitals provide services to smaller community hospitals or within community settings, including patients' homes.
- Work is carried out as part of a multidisciplinary team alongside a range of health and social care professionals such as nurses, doctors, physiotherapists, pharmacists and porters.
- Jobs are available in most areas of the country. However, there are only a relatively small number of jobs available and you may need to relocate to increase your chances of career progression.
- Physiological scientists are often responsible for patients' health when they're seriously ill. You may also have to deal with unwilling or uncooperative patients.
- During training, there is an opportunity to experience working in a variety of different hospital laboratories. You may have to travel to other parts of the country to fulfil the training requirements and spend a few weeks there. You'll also have to travel to the university to complete your Masters degree.
To become a healthcare scientist working in physiological sciences, you'll need a degree in a related subject, for example, physiology, pure or applied physics, engineering, biology or human biology. You can then apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) to train as a clinical scientist.
Entry on to the STP is competitive as there are many more applicants than places available, and you'll need a first or 2:1 degree, or a 2:2 with a relevant Masters or PhD. For all applicants, getting good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful, as is evidence of research experience (for example, through a relevant Masters or PhD).
The STP is a three-year, full-time, workplace-based training programme that leads to more senior scientist roles in the NHS. During this time you'll be employed in a fixed-term salaried post in physiology. The first year of training is spent on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three. Training includes study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in your chosen area of specialism, for example cardiac science or audiology.
You need to apply for a place on the STP via the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) website. Recruitment usually takes place in January, but check the NSHCS website for details. If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate.
On successful completion of the STP you're eligible to apply for a Certificate of Attainment from the Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), which allows registration as a clinical scientist with the HCPC. See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.
For information on STP training in Wales, see Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW). There are separate scientist training schemes in:
- Scotland - NHS Education for Scotland - Clinical Scientists
- Northern Ireland - NI Direct Healthcare Scientist
If you don't already have a degree, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP), which provides undergraduate training leading to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science. Relevant programme themes are cardiovascular, respiratory and sleep sciences, and neurosensory sciences. Courses are full time (usually three years), and include a mixture of academic learning and workplace-based training in the NHS. After graduation you'll be qualified as a healthcare science practitioner. It's also possible to apply for the STP.
You'll need to have:
- laboratory skills and the ability to plan and design research investigations and experiments
- manual dexterity, coordination and sensory skills
- strong problem-solving skills and the ability to use your initiative
- an analytical and investigative mind in order to assess scientific, technical and medical literature
- the ability to make judgements that impact on patients
- excellent interpersonal and communication skills, both written and spoken
- good active listening skills for communicating with patients
- good IT skills, as most laboratories are computerised
- teamworking skills in order to work collaboratively
- the ability to work independently
- the skills to lead and motivate others
- attention to detail and the ability to work with speed and accuracy
- a flexible approach to work with the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
- the ability to work under pressure and to plan and prioritise your workload
- a high level of self-motivation, emotional resilience, reliability and good self-awareness.
- commitment to, and enthusiasm for, scientific practice and its application in a clinical environment to improve patient care.
Entry on to the STP is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. To improve your chances, try to get a placement in a hospital department. Arrange visits to hospital departments or make speculative applications for short-term work experience in relevant departments and clinics.
Voluntary work with patients, for example, can also be useful. It's good to have a range of life experiences so you can show your range of skills. Mentoring experience is also helpful.
Try to attend an STP Open day for your specialism to get a better insight into the role and programme.
The majority of healthcare scientists working in physiological sciences spend most of their career working for the NHS in hospital clinics and departments, or as part of a surgical team. Some, however, work in the community and will visit patients at home or school. There are also opportunities in the private healthcare sector in hospitals and clinics.
You could also work for a university, carrying out research. These posts are often linked to related university hospitals.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Jobs.ac.uk - jobs in higher education teaching and research.
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
You can also check professional bodies representing different areas of the physiological sciences.
Once qualified, you must keep up to date with the ongoing developments in your area of expertise, as well as building on your laboratory and management skills. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC. CPD activities can be any activities from which you learn and develop and may include:
- work-based learning, such as in-service training, expanding your role
- professional activities, e.g. being involved in a professional body
- self-directed learning, such as reading articles and published papers
- attending conferences, workshops and lectures
- publication in peer-reviewed journals
- presenting research and papers at conferences
- undertaking work exchanges abroad
- undertaking research at PhD level
- applying for research grants.
Once you've got experience, you may apply to train to become a consultant healthcare scientist via the Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme. This five-year, workplace-based training programme includes study at doctorate level at a standard similar to medical speciality training. See the NSHCS website for full details.
There is a structured career path within the NHS. Once qualified, you can progress through the grades by gaining experience and completing further study and research. Promotion is based on merit and you may need to move to other hospitals to make the most of available opportunities.
Career prospects vary depending on your area of clinical specialism, for example cardiac science or audiology. Within each of these areas, there is the possibility to specialise further, for example in echocardiographic techniques or cochlear implants.
As your career develops, you're likely to take on a more supervisory role with responsibility for the work of your department. Progression to consultant involves further training via the HSST programme. Promotion to deputy head or head of department is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section. It's possible to gain a senior position by making a significant contribution to your area of expertise.
There are opportunities to move into clinical research or to get involved in training and registration assessments. You can also develop your career by getting involved with professional bodies, taking on external professional roles or moving into advisory roles.