Engineers and scientists working in the NHS need better training and career development options to bring the full benefits of innovative healthcare technologies to patients, the government has admitted.
The health departments covering the UK's four nations are considering plans for more structured career paths for medical scientists, designed to ensure they can adapt to the changing demands of the healthcare system.
Medical scientists, including those engaged in engineering disciplines, face obstacles to their development because of an existing set of inflexible and often over-complex training procedures, said theDepartment of Health
Novel medical and social care technologies are seen as crucial to the future of the NHS as it gears up to cope with an ageing population that will demand an ever-higher standard of healthcare, often delivered at home rather than in hospital. Improving the training and professional development of its scientists and engineers would boost the health service's ability to carry out research-and-development (R&D) work in areas such as remote patient monitoring.
Healthcare professionals are also expected to work with increasingly sophisticated equipment and techniques on a regular basis. Early diagnosis of conditions is another priority area for future healthcare, and the implementation of new diagnostic technologies will require a highly skilled scientific workforce.
The new proposals, expected to be implemented in 2012, aim to dramatically improve the training of medical scientists through a UK-wide framework of professional development. Those planned to benefit work in more than 50 separate disciplines covering three broad areas - life sciences, physiological sciences and physical sciences and engineering.
As well as raising skill levels of medical scientists, the NHS hopes the initiative - the Modernising Scientific Careers (MSC) programme - will raise the profile of the scientists and engineers working in its ranks.
MSC also plans to better define the multitude of pathways into medical science careers - there are currently about 45 - helping to attract new entrants to the NHS. Under proposals being considered, scientific specialists would progress through three distinct stages from healthcare science assistant, to healthcare scientists practitioner and healthcare scientist, with the possibility of moving between roles available.
Some 50,000 medical scientists, accounting for about five per cent of total employees in the UK health system, would be affected by the changes.
Prof Sue Hill, the Department of Health's chief scientific officer, claimed the proposed changes would help the NHS deliver innovative care and leading-edge R&D.
MSC is currently in its initial stages and is gathering input from interested parties, including healthcare managers, trade unions and universities.
The consultation will run until 27 February.