2011 Biomedical Science - A Degree for All Seasons

 Chas Chowdrey, David Holmes and Gerry McKenna


There has been some recent confusion and uncertainty within the higher education sector and the Biomedical Scientists profession, concerning the proposed development of degree programmes in ‘healthcare science’ as an alternative to the integrated Biomedical Science (BMS) programmes for entry into the biomedical science profession. This has arisen through the various deliberations and pronouncements emanating from the Modernising Scientific Careers (MSC) project. This article sets out the compelling arguments as to why the integrated BMS programmes should remain the qualification of choice for NHS laboratory employers.



The Biomedical Science profession has had a long and distinguished history within hospital pathology in the United Kingdom. It has evolved from an originally unaccredited and ad hoc profession through a variety of stages involving certification by the Institute of Biomedical Science (formerly the Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences, established in 1912) to an all-graduate profession with degrees accredited by the Institute and approved by the Health Professions Council - the statutory body overseeing the qualifications for entry to the profession.


The first Biomedical Science honours degree programmes were developed in the mid-1970s. They were extremely popular with employers, who wanted highly skilled and flexible graduates; and with potential students, who saw the programmes as academically interesting and offering a wide range of career options, one of which was working in NHS laboratories. The programmes quickly began to supplant the pre-existing BTEC Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Diploma (HND) programmes as the preferred entry route to the Biomedical Science profession. By the beginning of the 1990s the BMS profession had moved to all-graduate entry. This reflected the availability of BMS graduates through the growth in the number of BMS degree programmes during the 1980s as a result of high student demand (there are now over 70 universities offering BMS degree programmes, of which 49 have programmes accredited by the IBMS and 39 approved by the HPC as meeting their education and training requirements for State Registration as a biomedical scientist). There are also a number of IBMS-accredited Master’s programmes and professional doctorates in BMS. There is clear articulation between the various degree levels and this has been endorsed by the national Quality Assurance Agency.


The Current Accredited and Approved Programmes.

The HPC approved BMS programmes include the professional training required for State Registration as an integral part of the programme. Although all such programmes have similar learning and training outcomes, they vary between having the laboratory placement element spread at intervals throughout a 3-year programme, to having it organized as a full year of placement within a 4-year sandwich programme. The academic content, while covering all of the recognized biomedical science specialisms, includes core subjects such as physiology, biochemistry, genetics, immunology and molecular biology. All approved programmes include a final year research project. The academic and training content of the programmes has evolved in response to the changing needs of employers and requirements of the professional body (IBMS). This has been achieved by the input and advice received from university-employer liaison committees, by the regularly reviewed IBMS criteria for accreditation, by experience gained through joint delivery of work based learning and by the HPC Standards of Proficiency and Standards of Education and Training. A high proportion of graduates from HPC approved programmes follow careers as NHS biomedical scientists, however they, like their counterparts emerging from non-HPC approved BMS programmes, have a variety of career options beyond the NHS including the biopharmaceutical industry, biotechnology, research, academia etc. Their career achievements and range of senior positions attained in the private and public sectors are extremely impressive and bear favourable comparison with graduates from other science disciplines over the past 30 years.


Implications of Modernising Scientific Careers

The Modernising Scientific Careers (MSC) initiative, developed over recent years by the Department of Health, has implications for the BMS profession and for universities currently offering IBMS-accredited and HPC-approved BMS degree programmes. Its stated intention is to “provide a career framework for healthcare science professionals by providing an education and training programme that is clear and coherent – enabling individuals to move throughout healthcare science without being sidelined and avoiding risk of career dead ends”. This is laudable. It will involve the establishment of a common structure for the variety of scientific disciplines working within the NHS including the plethora of currently non-regulated groups. It proposes 3 distinct, though potentially linked, levels of science professionals namely, healthcare science associate, healthcare science practitioner and healthcare scientist.


While BMS graduates should clearly meet the requirements for entry into the Scientist Training Programme (STP), much discussion has taken place concerning the suitability of integrated BMS degrees as an entry qualification into the lower level Healthcare Science Practitioner grade. The MSC team has been undertaking work with employers and other interested groups to develop draft guidelines for degree programmes to meet the perceived education and training requirements for the healthcare science practioner grade. In the case of laboratory scientists these proposed programmes are intended to be at honours degree level and named BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science (life sciences). Without commenting on the academic quality or coherence of the proposed programmes, nor seeking to decry the efforts of those who have contributed earnestly to the process, it is clear from their indicative content and suggested learning outcomes that the requirements are already being met, and exceeded, by the existing integrated BMS degree programmes. While there now appears to be acceptance by the MSC team of the notion of equivalence of existing qualifications , it remains difficult to comprehend the rationale behind developing an entirely new product for biomedical scientists when a ‘fit for purpose’, unchallenged, and highly popular brand, open to modification as appropriate, already exists and which has IBMS accreditation and HPC approval.


It is recognized that that for bureaucratic tidiness involving the articulation of a simple career progression pathway, a ‘healthcare science’ generic degree title might have the benefit of bringing together,  under a single heading, a qualification for the many disparate and currently unregulated small groups of science professionals in the NHS. However it would be folly and inefficient to insist that those ‘healthcare scientists’ working in NHS and other diagnostic laboratories with the protected title ‘Biomedical Scientist’ should in future be exclusively required to have completed a programme with the title ‘healthcare science’ while other graduates holding qualifications meeting, at least, the same learning and training outcomes, and with more universally and popularly recognized titles, should be debarred. In such circumstances the ‘healthcare science (life sciences) programme student numbers would have to match exactly the manpower requirements of the NHS, as the title is unlikely to have much currency elsewhere. Conversely, BMS degree holders have a wide variety of career options both at home and abroad, thus obviating the need for NHS manpower planning for hospital laboratories to reach a level of reliability never achieved previously.


The Future

It remains unclear as to why the MSC team has not yet accepted openly that, in the case of the majority grouping of scientists in the NHS, namely biomedical scientists, the entry qualification of choice should be the proven, and flexible, integrated BMS degree. It is to be hoped that the heretofore inexplicable aversion by the MSC team to these nationally and internationally respected and successful programmes, devised and modified with the full involvement of employers, is not representative of an indirect assault, on the protected title of ‘Biomedical Scientist’. Their existence and proven success represents no threat to the stated aims of the MSC project. Rather, they should be endorsed as an example of best practice. The MSC team should move rapidly to endorse the integrated BMS programmes and concentrate its efforts on the development of suitable and academically coherent education and training programmes for the other currently unregulated healthcare science professions - which was one of the primary reasons for establishing the MSC project in the first place.


Professor Chas Chowdrey is President of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Science (HUCBMS);

Dr David Holmes is Hon. Executive Secretary of HUCBMS;

Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA is President Emeritus of HUCBMS

Original version of an article published in The Biomedical Scientist, January 2011


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