Specialisms | Clinical Bioinformatics – Physical Science

Furthering knowledge and improving the health service through the commissioning and development of hardware, software, and algorithms that process clinical, biomedical and associated business data.

It is difficult to imagine modern healthcare without the many medical devices, diagnostic machines and clinical ICT systems that are deeply embedded within it. From an MRI machine that generates diagnostic images to a clinical information system that stores ICU measurements; these complex pieces of engineering and technology are vital to ensuring healthcare data can be robustly captured and patient information sent to those who need it. Who ensures that this technology is appropriate and that data from it is used in the best way possible? If you’re from a physical sciences background and want to use technology to improve healthcare, then it could be you!

What do Clinical Informaticians in Physical Science do?

Clinical informaticians in Physical Science work with professionals in Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering ensuring that these clinical IT systems and medical devices are safely commissioned and comply with information standards. In addition we write bespoke software to control specialist devices, model biological processes, and to investigate and manipulate data produced by medical devices and clinical systems. Some examples of work you may undertake and skills you would learn:

  • Clinical software project management and development – being able to talk to stakeholders such as doctors, nurses, AHPs, ICT and other scientists about their needs, design a suitable technological solution and deliver on it. This could involve database design, web development, signal processing and many other aspects of software engineering and computer science. Additionally, you’ll develop management skills and the ability to tackle complex engineering problems in a systematic way.
  • Analyse medical images/other data and explain to others – for example, write software that can aid with medical physics workflows such as assessing image quality or performing automatic segmentation. This could involve using advanced statistical techniques such as machine learning. You’ll also be expected to be able to explain your results to other professionals who may not have the same expertise so that they can make appropriate decisions.
  • Manage the introduction of new medical equipment and assess their safety – the introduction of new clinical ICT systems, especially those that are medical devices, may require input from clinical informaticians. You may be involved in installation and risk management activities such as setting up servers and liaising with users about clinical ICT safety issues.

You may be thinking that aspects of some of these seem similar to bits of Clinical Bioinformatics – Health Informatics and even Clinical Bioinformatics – Genomics, and you would be right. Nothing in healthcare exists in a bubble and many of the most interesting challenges are at the interface of disciplines and departments. Whilst you’ll most likely be working in a Medical Physics and/or Biomedical Engineering department with imaging and medical device data you may find opportunities that cross over with Genomics and Health Informatics to combine data from different modalities to generate interesting insights leading to personalised care for patients and operational improvements; part of the STP experience is seizing opportunities where you find them.

It’s important to note that we’re still a relatively new specialism so there’s a fair degree of variability in what exactly you’ll do based on where you’re placed, so my advice would be to reach out to departments that you’re interested in to see where their focus is. You’ll fulfil the same competencies wherever you’re placed, but the projects you do and technologies you’re exposed to could vary dramatically.

How Does the STP Prepare You?

Speaking of competencies, we undertake the same first-year rotations as the other two Clinical Bioinformatics programmes but may be expected to take away different points from our experiences. You can find out exactly what the training involves from the NSHCS Curriculum Library but here’s a quick summary:

Year 1 Rotations

  • Computing for Clinical Scientists – In many ways, this is the fundamental module for all the Clinical Bioinformatics specialisms and focusses on learning core skills around designing, developing and interacting with data-centric systems. You’ll learn the basics of software engineering within the NHS, ensuring that user needs and regulatory requirements are met, and develop/design a SQL database with a web-based front-end.
  • ICT in the Clinical Environment – This rotation gives a broad introduction to the specifics of the Physical Science stream exposing you to analyses of data collected through clinical measurement and aspects of applying image processing techniques as well as how to explain your work to non-experts. Additionally the rotation lets you gain experience about some of the more ICT focussed aspects, such as implementing clinically sensitive components safely and ensuring that deployed systems work as intended.
  • Introduction to Health Informatics Science – Here you’ll learn about how informatics is used to provide safe, secure, high-quality, effective patient-centred services. It focusses on carrying out a clinical audit, and safely using patient data. As a Clinical Informatician in Physical Sciences you’ll at times be accessing, viewing and sharing patient identifiable data, so what you learn here is just as important for you as it is for Health Informaticians.
  • Introduction to Clinical Bioinformatics & Genomics – You’ll be forgiven if at first glance you think that you’re unlikely to gain anything from this rotation. Whilst it’s true that many Clinical Informaticians in Physical Science won’t deal with genetic data directly after this rotation, it is possible that you’ll work closely with people who do in the future. Therefore the introduction to basic genetics, bioinformatics tools and clinical variant analysis is essential to your development as a Clinical Informatician in the modern NHS.

Specialist Rotations

  • The Project Management Life Cycle – A significant part of working as a Clinical Informatician is being able to identify problems that can be improved through the use of technology and then designing and developing appropriate solutions for benefit of the health service. This rotation focusses on developing the skills needed to initiate and control a project so that it achieves its aims; whatever these may be. One of the best things of this rotation is that the competencies are focussed on the process, so it’s up to you and your training officer to decide on what the project will be and what other things you get to learn whilst doing it.
  • Advanced ICT Skills – Building on ICT in the Clinical Environment, this rotation focusses more deeply on the communication and safety standards in the NHS. You’ll learn about how data is sent around and between hospitals, as well as the specifics of deploying new systems.
  • Database Management, Data Mining and Modelling – Here you develop your skills of database design and information extraction by building more complex schemas and using advanced techniques to generate insights and learning. For example, developing predictive models on clinical data.

Sounds Great! Anything Else I Should Know?

Hopefully, this has given you a better understanding of what my specialism involves. As it’s one the less patient facing specialisms, I think that it’s important to note that you are applying first and foremost to be a Clinical Scientist, and not a computer scientist. Granted that a lot of the knowledge you’ll need and use on a daily basis will be technical, but you also need to know why you’re applying to work in the NHS. Technology in healthcare impacts the patient and it’s important to realise the implications of this.

If you have any questions, I’m always happy to talk about what I do. The best way to contact me is to ping me on Twitter on @haroonrchughtai

Author: Haroon

Research Software Developer at UCL. Interested in digital health, and healthcare computing & informatics.

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