An interview with a Consultant Clinical Scientist

For this blog post I interviewed Nuthar Jassam who is a Consultant Clinical Biochemist and Clinical Lead for Blood Sciences at Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust.  She studied on both the old and new Higher specialist Scientists Training (HSST) programme (Doctorate equivalent of the STP). We spoke about her day to day job, the HSST, courses she’s found helpful and what she thinks her most important attributes are.

So Nuthar, what are you working on at the moment?

I’m looking at the longitudinal antibody response to Covid-19 in patients with mild infection. The first phase, which was evaluating one of the techniques used in the longitudinal study has just been published and can be found here.

What might a typical workday look like for you?

There isn’t a typical workday! No two days are ever the same. I share the duty rota with one other member of staff so if I’m on duty that week, my day might consist of looking into queries about patients results and validations, via phone, letters and email. There might be questions from the lab about issues with accepting samples or requirements for more details. If I’m not on duty, I’ll work on setting up a new service, service improvement projects, clinical liaison and clinical audits currently going on in the departments. We also offer advice and guidance to GPs in the area and this is done electronically.

Could you tell me about your work on harmonising the clinical scientist syllabus across Europe?

Clinical scientists in the UK have wider scope of role when compared to our colleagues in Europe. In the UK clinical scientists are embedded in clinical services and clinical service design. We work in harmony with our front-line medical colleagues. European equivalents have more research and more of a lab-based role. In the UK consultant clinical scientist have medical equivalent status and their input is highly respected.

According to the European Directive on Recognition of professional Qualifications; engineers, medics and nurses can move/work freely between countries and at this stage European clinical scientists can’t do the same. Harmonizing the syllabus (set of skills, knowledge, competences and length of training) across Europe for clinical scientists is a step towards setting a standard of equivalence and a common training framework that facilitates movements of specialists in lab medicine across EU.

The HSST and other leadership programs can prepare you for these challenges. I used the knowledge and skills I gained from the HSST to update EU syllabus to harmonise the training of clinical scientists in Europe.

What made you start the new HSST?

Well, I had already completed the old HSST training and I was offered to join the new training programme. My passion for learning and my involvement with writing the European syllabus made me jump to the opportunity. The old HSST was more clinically based and the new HSST more academically focused. You can transfer credits over from previous study and completion of the HSST can include the FRCPath (needed to become a consultant clinical scientist).

Part of the HSST is an innovation module. This is where you make something novel and unique which can be used in clinical practice. I chose a project that supported my team and saved my Trust (£47 K), way over the cost of my course fees. If each HSST student does this, it could save the NHS a fortune! It gives you the empowerment to start something new and makes you confident. It gives you high qualifications and a high level of confidence.

I would definitely recommend the HSST, I think it’s amazing! I often hear my chemical pathologist colleagues referring to this program as high quality. The new generation of clinical scientists are very promising.

Could you share some organisational tips that have helped you?

Use every moment you can! I had two children under the age of three whilst I was studying for the HSST. I took every opportunity I could to learn. Take the kids swimming and have a paper to read, take them to karate and take a book. This ongoing update of my knowledge was like an ongoing revision. I kept to short periods of about 30 minutes a day but I was consistent. It sinks in slowly and gradually.  I would also read on the train (on the morning only),  the train is 25 minutes journey and I read every day on the train, it’s so amazing how much you read in a year if you do that every day.

Could you recommend any courses that have been particularly helpful?

The NHS senior leadership course. In the past being a leader was something that either came naturally to you or it didn’t.  The leadership course teaches you how to be a leader.  I remember on my first day I stood up and I was very sceptical. I thought, I’m 44 years old what do you mean ‘by the end of this process I’ll be a different person’?  Slowly and gradually you don’t see it happen, but suddenly it hits you you’re not the same person that started this process years ago. It gives you the base, a foundation and then you can build anything on top.

What are your most important attributes that make you good at your job?

I am honest to myself.  You have to be in connection with your gut feeling. Don’t move if something inside tells you it’s not right. I’m really meticulous with research because I’m trying to find the right answer that satisfies me. If I’m satisfied, then it’s right and I could say that 99% of the time it is.

I also always ask myself, would I do this if this patient was my mother? And then would I be able to stand in the court defending this practice? I always ask myself these two questions and if the answer is no, then something needs to be changed.

Biggest challenges of a consultant role?

The first three years were hard, not because you don’t have the knowledge because you’re frightened and that fear restricts your movement.  Sometimes it’s healthy fear because you’re worried about making mistakes that have an impact on other peoples’ lives. The reality is you have to learn how to make decisions, regardless of whether you’re right or wrong you never know sometimes.  You are leading clinically, managerially or scientifically you have to give the answer, no one else can help you with it just you and you have to do your best. 

It is a very safe process and a very safe system because when you’re training your relationship with your supervisor and consultant is really close and when you qualify, they are still there in a mentorship role.  They are happy to mentor you until you’re completely ready.  I had my supervisor’s personal mobile phone and during my first year qualified, I rang them with so many questions. They weren’t there to give me the answer, they listened to me, we had discussions and they helped me to decide if my answer was right or wrong. The more you do this and the more you’re right, the more you feel comfortable and the more confidence you build.

Before three years of being a consultant role or serious managerial role, every person around you believes you know it all but the only person that doesn’t know is you. Everyone else around you believes you are confident.  The first three years are challenging but after that there’s nothing that will faze you.

You’re safe though, the system makes me safe. You can always pick up the phone and speak to a colleague, that’s normal practice. Each of us has a sub-speciality of expertise that others don’t have and we need each other for this. They give advice and get advice, senior colleague to senior colleague. In medicine they have MDT (multidisciplinary team meetings) and we share and advise each other in the same way.

What attributes do people wanting to become consultant clinical scientists need?

I believe that for all jobs, what you need is slightly above average intellect.  You don’t need to be a genius to do this job or even medicine or engineering but what you need you need like any other job, you need to love what you’re doing. If you have passion for it, you’re going to do it to the best standard and your passion will lead you to do everything required in terms of skills.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received

Before I became a consultant, I was going to say thank you to my colleagues and I got some advice from them.  One of them told me ‘Don’t ever do deals behind closed doors, be transparent’ and that was golden advice. The second one told me ‘Learn to make a decision’. You can correct it but if you don’t know how to make a decision, you’re frozen.  The third senior consultant told me,  ‘The service in Harrogate is a good service before you got there. So when you get there don’t make any changes before six months at least.  Sit, absorb and learn for six months’. It makes you know what works and what doesn’t work.  Sometimes, although you might have a good idea, a great idea, it doesn’t work in different environments. That’s why you need to look at your environment in detail with patients in mind and you’ll become more understanding of the service of the establishment before you make any changes.

Authors note: I then made a comment about receiving feedback from my job previous to starting the STP about maybe perhaps giving too many ideas when I was new and that I tried hard to take that to my STP post. To absorb and listen and not try to impress. Nuthar’s response was:

Sometimes as a trainee, you may be more knowledgeable than your consultant. This is a fast-moving field, they have huge responsibility and they specialise, they might not catch up with everything but you might because as a trainee you are in a learning phase. If you share that with someone senior, it might become even a better idea.

Author: Erin

I am a second year trainee clinical bioinformatician (genomics) at the Viapath lab at Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Foundation Trust in London. I now co-edit STP Perspectives : )

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