Robert Simpson

Robert Simpson01

IBMS Council Treasurer Robert began work as a junior MLSO in 1978. Here he recalls his travels and one of the more eye-opening laboratory techniques at the time.


My travels

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in a number of hospitals and with great colleagues. I started in 1978 as a junior A MLSO (medical laboratory scientific officer).

For the first two years I rotated around the pathology departments at Farnborough Hospital in Kent, spending 3 months in histopathology, followed by six months each in microbiology haematology (with a short time in transfusion) and biochemistry.

Getting an ONC (Ordinary National Certificate) in Medical Laboratory Sciences meant I could become a junior B MLSO position in the Biochemistry department. Two more years training and a Technician Education Council Higher Certificate in Medical Laboratory Sciences got me a qualified MLSO post.

At the time I entered the profession, university training was just starting, and most trainees were employed by a hospital, working four days a week plus one day at college. I attended Bromley Technical College where lectures and practical sessions went on until about 8.30 pm. People travelled from London and all over Kent to attend the classes at Bromley. We usually managed a trip to the pub after college as well.

I spent a further 3 years at Farnborough Hospital and in our laboratory at Bromley Hospital, during which I passed the special exam for IBMS fellowship. I then went to Australia for a working holiday and spent time in the pathology departments of Woden Valley Hospital in Canberra and Darwin Hospital in the Northern Territory.

On return to the UK, I worked at Central Middlesex Hospital in NW London and then moved on to Scotland where I was one of a small team who set up the pathology department in a new private hospital on Clydebank. I was responsible for the clinical chemistry lab and spent seven years there.

Returning to London I worked as laboratory manager of the chemical pathology department at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals. Latterly I have worked in Portsmouth as a pathology manager, and following that Director of Pathology Contracts and Performance at Bedford Hospital’s NHS Trust.


Improved analytical techniques

It has been wonderful to have been working in pathology as analytical techniques have developed and improved. When I first entered the profession radioisotopes were commonly used as labels in immunoassay, these have mostly been replaced by safer alternatives.

Mass spectrometry and genomic techniques are now entering routine use. I remember the first PC being installed in the lab at Farnborough, since then computing has allowed labs to automate much of the manual work and data transmission, no more handwriting results on to piles of pre-printed patient report forms!

Pathology and biomedical scientists have worked with colleagues in the other professions to introduce common standards for our services firstly with CPA (Clinical Pathology Accreditation) and then through UKAS and ISO15189.


The IBMS CPD scheme

Early in my career we often attended evening and weekend lectures and seminars, these were usually organised by IBMS branches and regions. The IBMS later developed a scheme for formally recognising this sort of activity with its CPD scheme. I believe this was one of the first in healthcare in the UK. It took me a while to get to grips with writing reflective practice though!

Being part of the IBMS has given me lots of opportunities to get involved and promote the profession, for example by being a member of branch committees, as specialist advisor on the clinical chemistry advisory panel and also on Council.


Mouth pipettes and lab coats

When I started training in the late 1970s, health and safety rules were rather different to those now in force. I remember being taught to mouth pipette reagents, which we did very carefully! Most diagnostic labs don’t prepare many reagents from bulk raw chemicals now, but we were making up “working reagents” using glass pipettes to mouth pipette strong acids, hydrochloric acid, that sort of thing. It was perfectly normal.

I remember the introduction of devices to help manage these liquids. They took quite a lot of practice to use deftly but did remove the need to mouth pipette hazardous liquids. When I was training I recall one of my older colleagues saying, “When I was training we had to mouth pipette some of the samples too!”

Lab staff used to wear traditional doctors style white coats, these did not provide complete protection most people possessed work clothing that was “customised” with chemical stains from small splashes and spillages. The lab coats we now wear with elasticated cuffs and high collars much provide better protection, when these were introduced they were known as “Howie coats” after the author of the report that recommended their introduction.  


Relationships – then and now

Something that’s changed between when I started to how it is now is the relationship we had with our fellow hospital staff.

When I started there was a much closer relationship with the wards and clinics. We visited the wards first thing in the morning to collect blood specimens from the patients who had had tests written up by their doctors. Because we were out and about round the hospital we knew people from all over, administrators, pharmacists, radiographers, porters, housekeepers as well as the doctors and nursing staff. We had great times socialising with the other members of staff in the hospital social club. Some of my colleagues met their partners through the social scene at the hospital.

I’m fortunate to be in touch with many colleagues I’ve met over the years, although after a while you can lose touch with people, it’s important to appreciate the relationships you have with your colleagues, especially when you’re working together to provide a professional service which helps to save lives.