Biomedical scientist Annie Ward works in the Microbiology lab at North Tyneside Hospital and here she talks about how covid has impacted on her work and raised the profile of scientists within the NHS
In my role I look for bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal infections in patients from the whole of Northumbria Healthcare including hospitals, GPs, and GUM patients. We also perform antibiotic sensitivity testing.
I was good at science at school and really enjoyed it so decided that I wanted a scientific career. Initially I was interested in becoming a doctor and when I started looking into medical courses I discovered that you could spend a year studying BSc Medical Microbiology and Immunology. I was more excited for this year than I was to become a doctor so changed my UCAS application at the last minute.
I’ve worked in NHS laboratories since 2013, and as a BMS since 2015. The biggest challenge for me at the moment is balancing working in a 24/7 laboratory and studying for my MSc.
I like that I work in both a laboratory but also a healthcare setting. The work that I do has a direct impact on patients – that could be providing cell counts, urgent Gram stain results, antibiotic sensitivity results or routine culture results.
Every day is different and the microbiology department, although semi-automated, still uses scientists’ skills to decipher the causes of infections. A particular favourite of mine is being able to visualise bacteria down a microscope, it still fascinates me to be able to see something so small.
We now have a whole new section to process and report the COVID-19 swabs from our trust. This includes ward outbreaks, routine screens, urgent swabs, infection control swabbing centres and outbreaks in care homes. The methods that we use are similar to those we have for other sample types- the same machine that tests for Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea is able to test for COVID-19. But the shift patterns and the number of staff needed to keep the section running has changed the layout and rotas for the majority of the laboratory staff.
At the beginning in particular it was difficult as the guidance we had could change multiple times a day. We started by referring our samples to London, then Manchester then to Newcastle. We didn’t always know how many test kits we would be allocated daily so needed to organise which samples would be processed in house and which were to be referred to another laboratory.
Finally, we had the machinery and capacity to test all of our samples in house which made things much easier. We also did not have any extra staff to deal with the whole new section added onto our laboratory at the beginning so all staff needed to change shifts and help to cover where needed.
I first got a job as a Medical Laboratory Assistant (MLA) in Microbiology at North Tyneside General Hospital in April 2013 and while working full time I topped up my degree via distance learning at Ulster University and completed my HCPC registration portfolio-Certificate of Competence.
In 2015 I moved to Harrogate for my first BMS job and from there I took a permanent job as a BMS at Hull Royal Infirmary in 2016. In 2017 I made the move back to North Tyneside to continue my BMS career closer to home.
Once I was back at North Tyneside I completed my Specialist Diploma in Microbiology which allowed me to progress to a band 6 BMS. In 2019 I started a distance learning MSc at Nottingham University in Clinical Microbiology.
I’m currently involved in a project that will allow GCSE/A-level students to virtually take a tour of the laboratories and participate in quizzes to help them to determine whether or not they fancy a career in healthcare science.
The thing I’ll remember most about this year is how the whole department pulled together as a team. Anything new that was thrown our way was dealt with easily and everyone was willing to cover extra shifts to make sure our work was processed and reported as quickly as possible.
We are often a forgotten department but we were always here 24/7 and able to process routine samples, urgent samples and also COVID.