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An interview with Dr Brendan Cooper, President of the Academy for Healthcare Science

Respiratory Physiologist Dr Brendan Cooper has been appointed as the first President of the Academy for Healthcare Science. Here he tells us more about his vision for the Academy and the professional journal that has brought him here.

Brendan Cooper_Lab


What do you hope to achieve for Healthcare Science as AHCS President?

My key roles as President are, firstly, to empower all UK Healthcare Scientists to unite and use our collective voice to influence change for quality scientific service. We should then sell the excellence we have in Healthcare Science to other medical professions and to awaken the British public to the brilliant resource they have in all of us together.

We, as Healthcare Scientists have so much more in common with each other than we are different – scientific principles & practise, workforce, training standards, a shared commitment to the quality of scientific services, regulation, values, beliefs and a mutual concern of the future of the NHS and UK healthcare. The one unifying force that we all defend to the hilt is the safety and care of our patients who use scientific services on the clinical pathway.

Why did you apply for the post of AHCS President?

It was a tough decision.  I have enjoyed immensely being President of ARTP (Association of Respiratory Technology & Physiology) and planned to continue my full three years of office.  However, the AHCS Presidency pulls together many aspects of my career, beliefs and energy to enable me to take my turn as leader of UK Healthcare Scientists, to work with like minded scientific leaders and to deliver a vision of AHCS – a vision of UK Healthcare Science.

There are many opportunities and challenges, but I have enjoyed similar experiences in my career up to now, and I didn’t want to regret avoiding a very unique opportunity. I’m going to give this my best shot, but for this to succeed I will need the support and hard work of many other Healthcare Scientists across the profession. I am confident ARTP will continue to be a strong force to be reckoned with without me at the helm.

Where do you see Healthcare Scientists and the profession heading in the future?

Currently there are several different levels of credibility, responsibility and career structure across the different professions.  I believe that there will be a more consistent career pathway for all 50 specialties producing a greater respect and understanding of HCS from the medical professions.

Regulation is key to the credibility of all Healthcare Scientists but we have evolved with a “curate’s egg” approach to this when the responsibilities in modern healthcare are immense for all health professionals, but especially around diagnostics and therapies. Basically, because of an outdated legislature system the necessary changes have been impossible to implement. I think we should look at the possibilities of using local devolution or European legislation to circumnavigate the perverse system we have inherited.

How did you get involved in working with professional bodies?

I started in ARTP by establishing myself as “Manufacturer’s Liaison Officer” where we built a strong connection with medical device companies and had a healthy “Watchdog” ensuring ARTP members were given a good deal. However, a certain Dr Sue Hill (as she was then), was getting more involved with the Department of Health (DH) and needed to handover the ARTP Chair to “new blood”.  At an ARTP dinner near Newark, the Executive Committee collectively all pointed the finger, that I should be the next Chair!  I really got a taste for the work there and stood for three terms of office – 9 years in total!  In that time the ARTP really came of age and went from a well meaning group of enthusiasts to a truly professional body.

How did you get involved with national scientific issues?

Through ARTP I was “volunteered” to work with the DH on a variety of projects including the “Clinical Physiology Group” which spawned the Registration Council for Clinical Physiologists (RCCP).  I also was ARTP representative for the Association of Clinical Scientists and a Partner for HCPC.  It was here that I met the great and the good of the Life Sciences and Medical Physics & Engineering communities and began to understand the bigger picture of Healthcare Scientists.

The UK has some amazing talent in Healthcare Science that the public know too little about, yet we have an international reputation for our research and services. I want to change that.

How has working internationally shaped your view of how Healthcare Science can progress?

I have been lucky to work with the European Respiratory Society which is setting standards in training and services for respiratory medicine and clinical services across Europe and beyond.  I have had opportunities in leadership at the scientist group level and as the Head of Assembly (Allied Respiratory Professionals) representing, scientists, nurses and physiotherapists. This has been a great experience in representing the views of colleagues in different disciplines from my own who are just as passionate about quality, standards and training so that patients are protected.

These are skills that I can translate to the 50 professional bodies in AHCS. While European issues can become a political and media football, working in Europe  is an effective way to find new solutions to common problems for HCS here in the UK.

I am also the UK Governor for the US International Committee for Respiratory Care. Seeing scientists working within the litigious culture of the USA is very eye-opening! Credentialisation and regulation is the name of the game in the US.

How important is your clinical work to you?

I thoroughly enjoy my work at Lung Function & Sleep at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham (QEHB).  I joined University Hospital Birmingham in 2003 and originally thought I’d stick around until the new QEHB was built.

However, moving two hospitals into one World Class Hospital has been amazing.  Connections happen in clinical practise and research that never happened before we came together in this stunning building.  Being in the global spotlight with the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, the rehabilitation of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Malala Yousafzai and being a specialist centre for Trauma, Transplant and Translational Research, there is a “buzz” like nowhere else I have ever worked. I have some of the best clinical colleagues you could ever wish to work with at QEHB.

How did you first get interested in the NHS?

I was born after my brother and sister (my Dad used to joke he had three kids, one of each!). I was raised in West Derby, Liverpool and had a wonderful school life at a boys grammar school in what was a hugely vibrant city for music, football (unfortunately I suffer from being a “blue” rather than a “red”, but it’s genetic!) and having a sense of humour. I spent more time than I should have done at Alder Hey Hospital with sprains, bumps, burns and bruises, but I think that world famous hospital was an inspiration for me to work in the health service.

What is your scientific background?

I originally trained as a biologist specialising in physiology and zoology at the University of Sheffield, although I loved biochemistry and actually had practicals in a laboratory that Hans Krebs had used to work on the tricarboxylic acid cycle theory. In fact, I am a Chartered Biologist and Member of the Society of Biology and at one stage I thought I wanted a career in marine biology.  I satisfy that yearning now with an interest in scuba diving and being an active member of the Marine Conservation Society.

However, In my final year at Sheffield I was taught by a wonderful “old school” physiologist Dr Gwendolyn Barer, who inspired me to be interested in respiratory responses to exercise. I enjoyed the respiratory practicals looking at hypoxic responses and the effects of breathing oxygen. The whole topic of respiration and the physiology of sleep utterly captured me.

How did you come to work in clinical physiology?

After graduating in Physiology & Zoology in 1982, I applied for a number of research technician posts and in the space of a week I had an interview at the Hammersmith Hospital, London and the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne to become a physiological measurement technician. I fell in love with Newcastle, the people, the hospital and the beautiful countryside of Northumberland. I was trained “in-house” and I followed the “BTEC” training course and was signed off with the all the key competences. I began my own research Masters Degree on lung function in diabetes at Newcastle University (a bit like a do-it-yourself STP course, I suppose!). In addition to this I was significantly involved in physiological research.

What first shaped your research interests?

Well, serendipity decided that really.  My Masters topic dragged me into the world of diabetes and metabolism. I was lined up to do a possible doctorate in respiratory muscle function in neuromuscular disease, but funding fell through.  I applied for a pre-doctoral research fellow in Prof George Alberti’s department at the Medical School in Newcastle University and then had a wonderful four years effectively as a biochemist using GC-MS, IR-MS, flow assays for amino acids, Kjeldahl analysis and stable isotope infusion studies of protein metabolism in diabetic pregnancy.  (Sir) George was an inspirational leader, a superb scientist and a great supporter of young and enthusiastic research teams. One of the great presenters we should all learn from.

Which of your published research papers are you proudest of?

I think every scientists’ first, “first-name” paper [B G Cooper, R Taylor, K G M M Alberti, G J Gibson. Lung function in Diabetes Mellitus. Respiratory Medicine [1990] 84; 235-239]  is always special (it was my lung function in diabetes work) and it did add some interesting parts to the jig-saw.

My most cited paper [B G Cooper, D Veale, C J Griffiths, G J Gibson. Value of Nocturnal Oxygen Saturation as a screening test for sleep apnoea. Thorax [1991] 46; 586-588] is on validating a simple screening method for detecting obstructive sleep apnoea. It is a real “Marmite” paper in that some people enjoy its simplicity, whilst other reject it as an oversimplification.  When you read it, you can see that it is based on the actual evidence and it is up to the reader to interpret the findings for their service.

My most enjoyable paper to write took me nearly 4 years of researching the literature [B G Cooper. Review: An Update on contraindications for lung function testing.
Thorax [2011] 66:714-723
], but asks as many questions as it answers.

Given your passion for research, why did you move into hospital work?

In Newcastle I had a young family and living from short term grants and applying for big national grants was risky and made life a bit unstable.  Once again, I applied for 2 jobs and had interviews in Nottingham on consecutive days.  It was either a physiology lectureship in the university, or head of the lung function department in a busy university hospital.  So in 1992 it was the hospital life that appealed to me most. Making patients lives better is a real privilege. I loved the research, but leadership beckoned and I had some excellent experience leading a team through some difficult times. It was in this post that I started to take an interest in my professional body, ARTP.

What is the best part of your role as a Consultant Clinical Scientist?

There are two clear aspects; Firstly, there is completing a Friday morning Sleep Apnoea Clinic having improved, as part of a great team at QEHB, 7-9 patients lives.  Finding a suspected sleep disorder requiring further investigation (polysomnography) is a bonus that really fires me up. Secondly, sitting down with twelve months of carefully collected clinical data and un-coding a clinical research study before analysing the data to confirm/deny the hypothesis is why I love doing what I do.  I want my juniors to gain that same enthusiasm, excitement and sense of contribution obtained by being a healthcare scientist.

And when you go home and stop being a healthcare scientist what do you do?

Well, apart from being the biologist/gardener, I am passionate about classic sports cars…………well cars and driving in general, to be honest. At weekends I drive a maroon 1971 Triumph TR6 which squeaks, rattles and leaks but produces the most amazing engine note!  I also enjoy mountain-biking on our local forest trails. Recently I hit a pot-hole and tumbled headlong onto the path. Not a good move at my age, especially since I landed on the collar bone I had broken skiing in Canada, 3 years ago! (Sometimes it seems I haven’t learned anything from those Alder Hey Hospital visits as a child!). Travel, music or dining with friends are the pleasures in life we are fortunate to have.

What advice would you give to a teenager who wanted to become a healthcare scientist?

Be good at arts, humanities and science subjects. Play a musical instrument (playing piano/guitar is an amazing escape from work stresses).  Play team games/sports, participate in amateur dramatics………….. but light the flame of being inquisitive!   Most of all ask the question “Why?” many times a day and look for the answer yourself.  Don’t accept “being told” the answer, figure it out yourself.

If you have an aptitude for caring for people;  if you like working with smart colleagues; if you work on your communication skills and develop attention to detail, good scientific skills and have a well rounded education, then you are what the AHCS will need in 5 years from now, for the next 40 years!

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