PHT’s Biomedical Scientists are responsible for investigating and diagnosing patient illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, food poisoning and meningitis, after blood samples are taken by doctors and nurses across the hospital.
Toby is a 38-year-old senior biomedical scientist that analyses and technically validates each sample of blood that is taken.
“That is the part of my job where I work nights,” says Toby. “The other side is the day job where I work alongside David Sinclair and a number of others on the Newborn Screening Programme.”
PHT screens 200 babies a day from Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset, and Toby processes the tests and flags up abnormal results to David, who then organises for the child to undergo follow up diagnostic tests.
Toby says from a young age he was always interested in biology and chemistry so went to university completing a degree in biomedical science. ‘I was lucky in that I got a trainee position so learnt the biomedical scientist role on the job. After a year I transferred to PHT where I have now been for 15 years, working my way up to a senior role.”
Toby says he would love to see the UK expand its screening programme for newborn babies to catch up with other European countries. “Despite screening for an extra four disorders in January, the UK is behind countries such as Germany and Holland who screen their babies for other diseases such as Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. I would like to be involved in the expansion of screening to future-proof the forthcoming generations,” he says.
When you think of a hospital’s workforce you instantly envision doctors and nurses, but never the scientist behind the cure.
Portsmouth Hospital’s Blood Sciences workforce consists of 134 laboratory staff, each contributing to an exciting and driven pathology laboratory which plays a vital role in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, and the rehabilitation of patients.
Overseen by scientist Dr David Sinclair, the team’s innovation and expertise help save lives and improve health care, which is fundamental in helping not just PHT, but the wider NHS respond to the challenges of public and patient needs in the 21st century.
David started at PHT in 1982 and is the equivalent of a hospital’s consultant, but he’s a Consultant Clinical Scientist. He can’t do the physical activities of operating hospital machinery, but instead his job is to make sense of the countless pathology tests that are undertaken across the Wessex region daily.
Alongside this David contributes to the training programmes of midwifes, health care assistants, GPs and doctors to help them make sense of the test results. He has been the Director of Newborn Screening across the Wessex region or 22 years, working with the Department of Health to suggest and introduce further conditions to screen babies against, with big consequences if he gets it wrong.
There is a lot of responsibility resting on the shoulders of this scientist, so I was intrigued to meet the man behind the thriving Portsmouth-based laboratory.
I meet David at the lab and instead of being greeted by a stereotypical scientist in a clinical white lab coat with sticky-up hair, I’m met by a man in a black suit with flat hair, but by-no-means is flat in personality. David’s bubbly personality and passion for what he does is infectious. At the top of his game David instantly talks me through his workforce. “If it wasn’t for my team, jokers like me might as well not come in,” he says in a heavily-punctuated Scottish accent.
David is keen for me to put the limelight on his team and not him personally. “I’m the public face of the department but that’s entirely the wrong emphasis,” he says. “I’ll take responsibility if things don’t go well, but the praise goes to my team, especially the junior members as it’s easy for them to be overlooked.”
David forms the link between the lab’s technical staff and both PHT and the community’s medical staff.
“I have to interpret the complex and technical test results to see what they actually mean so clinical doctors can better understand them. I then take it one step further and have a big teaching commitment, ensuring that everyone in the medical chain that comes into contact with the results actually understand them.”
In his role to organise and direct the newborn screening programme, David has introduced many conditions for the 40,000 babies that are born in his region each year, to be screened against.
“At five-days-old a baby will have a blood sample taken from the heel of their foot, these results are then sent to my lab where they’re screened for five separate conditions. When I started the UK only screened for two things so the NHS has come a long way over the years,” says David proudly. “Not to mention that from January 2015 we will be screening for an additional four conditions as well,” he continues.
As the director David needs to ensure he knows what to do should a test result flash positive. “These are life-threatening diagnoses so I have to create pathways for each of the things we screen for to ensure our doctors know who to tell, how quickly to react and what to do about a positive result.”
David stresses the importance of this part of his role. “This is a high-risk area where time plays a huge factor. As soon as a child presents themselves clinically with a condition or the results show a positive, action needs to be taken immediately as leaving it even 24-hours could be fatal, and I need to prevent that from happening – so it’s a lot of responsibility.”
David is the Trust’s Clinical Immunology lead, analysing the human immune system and how it works. He provides Consultant Immunology support for other hospitals labs in the region. With that in mind David spends a lot of his time researching and suggesting new tests that the government could screen for.
“Sometimes babies have immune deficiencies meaning they don't have the ability to fight routine infections on their own,” says David.
“Some deficiencies can be life-threatening. One example is severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), which is sometimes referred to as the boy in the bubble disease. The reference to the word ‘combined’ means that multiple parts of the immune system are affected.”
David says SCID can be successfully treated if it's identified early; otherwise, the death rate can be high within the first couple of years of life. He also says that trying to cure it is close to his heart. “The Trust looks after three patients that present clinically with SCID, and it’s heart-breaking for them and their families. It’s also expensive to keep them alive when they repeatedly catch infections and have to be admitted into hospital. I’m currently working on getting this condition routinely screened for within the five-day heel prick test, and if I achieve that it would be a huge a goal of mine personally.”
Having now heard what David’s role entails, it’s clear why he’s so passionate and enthusiastic about applying his knowledge of science to improve the health of others.
It’s immediately obvious that getting to the top requires long hours, energy, and most importantly a laser focus on priorities. We live in a multi-tasking world with a forever-changing landscape, and David’s scientific brain and energy are helping drive the pathology lab forward.
The lab has been the 58-year-old’s working-home for over two decades, a fact that’s reflected in his workforce. David’ buoyant personality promotes a culture that emphasises trust and respect.