Bulletin January 2021 Number 193

Lisa Ayers and Professor Berne Ferry summarise the key aspects of the Higher Specialist Scientific Training programme, which prepares healthcare scientists for consultant posts.

The five-year, work-based Higher Specialist Scientific Training (HSST) programme is the most senior-level training provision for healthcare scientists. It is open to the four countries of the UK, is managed and delivered by the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS), and funded by Health Education England (HEE). It is designed to prepare healthcare scientists for the challenging role of consultant scientist in the NHS, and is supported by an underpinning part-time, doctoral-level programme.

HSST and pathology specialties

Training for pathology specialties and life sciences is implemented through partnership with the Royal College of Pathologists (RCPath). Information on the wide range of HSST curricula available can be found here.

In these subjects, HSST trainees are required to gain Fellowship of the RCPath by undertaking their specialist FRCPath examinations. Gaining FRCPath is essential, along with research, leadership and high-level clinical competence, for completing the programme.

An outline of training and support provided

HSST offers a blend of training for essential skills required in senior scientific roles in the NHS, including leadership, innovation, research, and higher specialist scientific and clinical knowledge. Trainees also benefit from networking with other HSST trainees and have opportunities to learn from and collaborate with experts in their field.

The programme provides trainees with full funding of £3,000 per annum for the academic element, which can consist of a Professional Doctorate (DClinSci) in their chosen field and a PgDIP in Leadership and Management for scientists with or without a previous PhD.

In addition, trainees benefit from a £13,000 annual training budget for five years, to support the other training costs of the programme, including conference fees, professional examinations, travel and accommodation, and research costs.

The HSST programme is made up of 20% study time and time spent attending academic workshops and undergoing professional assessments.

The majority of HSST trainees are in-service candidates and therefore have important NHS service delivery roles in their departments, which complement the aims of the programme, providing practical experience and opportunities to put into practice the skills learnt on the course.

To find out more about HSST from scientists who have completed or are currently undertaking this programme, please see the five trainee profiles beginning in the opposite column and continuing to page 260.

Trainees emerging after HSST completion

The initial HSST cohorts are now beginning to complete the programme and move into consultant scientist roles across the NHS, implementing the skills that they have developed. Understanding and recognition of this programme continues to grow in the healthcare science community and among colleagues in other healthcare professions, including medicine and pharmacy. Gradually, too, Trust managers and HR personnel are beginning to acknowledge and understand its value.

We are now seeing life science HSST candidates take on significant clinical and scientific responsibilities, becoming clinical leads of departments and, where appropriate, running clinics. This increase in scope of practice is easing the burden in pathology areas where significant workforce gaps have been previously identified.

COVID-19 pandemic: stepping up to the mark

During the COVID-19 pandemic, HSST trainees have risen to the challenge and taken on additional roles and responsibilities to support the response. Some have been redeployed to critical areas, others have supported stretched clinical services, and all have contributed to additional service provision. The adaptability, resilience and innovative thinking shown are testament to these trainees and their experiences on the programme.

Change in eligibility criteria increasing access

In September 2020, the National School of Healthcare Science released a joint statement with the RCPath, Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS), Institute of Biomedical Science and Manchester Academy of Healthcare Science Education regarding a change to eligibility for entry to HSST from 2021, allowing entry for the first time to senior biomedical scientists with appropriate experience and qualifications.

All four nations of the UK support this opening up of eligibility criteria. It is hoped, too, that it will allow for wider participation in the programme and support recruitment in those specialties with the greatest workforce needs, including haematology, transfusion and microbiology.

Clinical scientists and biomedical scientists will have to complete the same academic and professional components, and achieve Fellowship of the RCPath by examination, to complete HSST and join the Higher Specialist Scientist register with the AHCS. Therefore, all healthcare scientists will exit the programme with the same consultant-level skills.

The high-level scientific expertise, research skills and leadership training that HSST trainees are beginning to bring to the NHS will benefit patients and provide the agility and scope needed to develop many different clinical teams across the healthcare spectrum in the UK.