Working as a healthcare scientist in physiology, you can specialise in a number of areas including cardiac sciences or audiology

As a healthcare scientist (also known as a clinical scientist) working in clinical physiology, 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 will 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.

Types of work

The areas covered by physiological sciences are:

  • audiology
  • cardiac sciences
  • clinical perfusion
  • critical care science
  • gastrointestinal physiology
  • neurophysiology
  • ophthalmic and vision science
  • respiratory physiology
  • sleep sciences
  • urodynamic science
  • vascular science.

Job titles and responsibilities will vary according to your specialist area.

Responsibilities

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
  • provide clinical supervision and training of junior and trainee staff.

Salary

  • 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 £26,565.
  • Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 (£31,696 to £41,787).
  • Salaries for senior and consultant clinical scientists range from £40,428 (Band 8) to £100,431 (top of Band 9), depending on your experience 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.

Working hours

There is a demand for late evenings and out-of-hours consultative work in addition to shift and weekend work to cover an extended working day, seven days per week. Flexible and 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 'cottage 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.
  • Physiological scientists are often responsible for patients' health when they're seriously ill. You may also have to deal with unwilling or uncooperative patients.
  • There is an emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness, particularly if you work in an operating theatre, where special gowns, gloves, footwear and masks must be worn. Some posts may involve lifting heavy equipment.
  • You may need to travel locally during the day to attend other hospitals or clinics or to visit patients in their homes.

Qualifications

As a graduate with a degree in a subject related to physiological sciences, for example, physiology, pure or applied physics, engineering, biology or human biology, you can apply for a place on the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP). Entry on to the STP is competitive 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. 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.

If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate. See the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS) website for programme details for both external and internal applicants.

Details of training posts may be advertised in the New Scientist, but candidates must apply through the online application portal Oriel. Recruitment usually takes place in January but check the NSHCS website regularly for details.

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 Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC). See the NSHCS website for full details on how to apply.

For information on STP training in Wales, see the Workforce, Education and Development Services (WEDS). There are separate scientist training schemes in:

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. Courses are full time (usually three years) and include a mixture of academic learning and workplace-based training in the NHS. After graduation you can apply to enter the NHS in a healthcare science practitioner role or may choose to apply for the STP, which offers pay on a higher scale and more opportunities for career progression. Other options include work in industry, the not-for-profit sector or private healthcare.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a combination of technical expertise and well-developed interpersonal skills
  • manual dexterity, coordination and sensory skills
  • the ability to make judgements that impact on patients
  • strong problem-solving skills
  • an analytical and investigative mind
  • attention to detail and the ability to work with speed and accuracy
  • excellent interpersonal and communication skills, both written and spoken
  • good active listening skills for communicating with patients
  • IT skills
  • the ability to work effectively as part of a team and also the skills to lead and motivate others
  • a flexible approach to work
  • the capability to work well under pressure
  • emotional resilience and good self-awareness.

Work experience

Entry on to the STP is competitive and there are many more applicants than places. Pre-entry work experience, for example through a placement in a hospital department, is extremely valuable when applying for a place. Arrange visits to hospital departments or make speculative applications for short-term work experience in relevant departments and clinics.

Make sure you attend an open day for your specialism to get a better insight into the role and STP programme.

Employers

The majority of healthcare scientists working in clinical physiology 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.

The armed forces employ clinical physiologists to help diagnose heart, lung and brain conditions. The work environment ranges from modern hospitals to field units with specialised portable equipment. For details, see Army Jobs.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

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 and can include:

  • attending conferences workshops and lectures
  • publication in peer-reviewed journals
  • presenting research and papers at conferences
  • undertaking work exchanges abroad
  • applying for research grants.

On-the-job training may include training relating to specific equipment or techniques within your specialist area. The type of training offered depends on the department and the area of work. Training on new equipment may be delivered by the manufacturers. Professional bodies also offer training on topics related to your area of specialism.

Once you've got experience, you may be able to train to become eligible for consultant healthcare scientist positions 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.

Career prospects

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 development varies 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 and then deputy head or head of department involves further training and is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section. Consultant healthcare scientists have the opportunity to make significant contributions to their area of expertise.

You can also develop your career through management or teaching and research.