Lynne, Sleep Physiologist, NHS Lothian

Lynne is a Specialised Sleep Physiologist at NHS Lothian. She came into her role after studying a degree in psychology and has now been working in sleep medicine for over 22 years.

Hi, my name is Lynne. I am a Specialised Sleep Physiologist and I started in my role around 22 years ago. I found out about working in healthcare science when I did my degree in psychology, and I came into working in the NHS via that role. I didn't know anything about healthcare science when I was at university – didn't know it existed – and it was doing placements for psychology that I really realised that there’s this whole other world that’s in the NHS and I fell in love with it.

So, my NHS journey started with my degree in psychology, and I decided to join the healthcare science team because I just thought it was so important and it was a vital role. So, what helped me achieve my career goals? I think quite a few things actually – being, I think, dedicated to making sure that I knew what I wanted to do and setting myself a path. It was counter-intuitively making sure I said yes and making sure I said no, so taking opportunities when they came along – did I want to go to conferences, did I want to learn new skills, did I want to maybe go down routes that I hadn't thought of before – saying yes to them, rather than just saying, ‘Oh no, I don't want to have to present’ or ‘I’d be too scared to do that’ or ‘That's not an area of healthcare science I want to explore’. But on the other hand, also making sure, when somebody said, ‘Oh, do you want to go and look into this area?’, or ‘Do you want to do this part?’, or maybe venture off into another area of science, if it wasn't something that I knew that I wanted to do or an area that I had already previously looked into, being strong enough to say, ‘No, actually, I know what I want to achieve and where I’d like to go with it’.

And making connections as well, I mean, healthcare science is really important, but the NHS is big, and the days can be tough. I mean, you're dealing with patients who have the whole spectrum of the population, who come with a whole spectrum of issues and healthcare needs. So sometimes, at the end of the day, you need to destress yourself, you need to look after yourself, so sticking to your own goals, making sure you know what you want to do. And also, just knowing sometimes it's actually – I think people say a lot, ‘it’s okay to not be okay’, and it is, but it's also okay to just sometimes not know what you want to or do where you want to go.

So, as well as knowing what you want to do and saying yes when the time's right and saying no when the time’s right also, I think it's okay, sometimes, to just take one day at a time and take that time to know who you are, what you want to do and then think, ‘Okay, is this where I want to be and what are my next steps’, and then plan for it and then come and speak to people like me – your line manager, your department lead – and make plans. So, each year as a healthcare scientist you would have a PDP [personal development plan], so a plan for the next year – where you'd like to go, training needs – and use that opportunity to plan out where you want your career, in the short term and in the long term, to go and then aim for it and try and make it happen.

And if it doesn't, if it's maybe not where, you know, after that 5-year plan, if it hasn't quite gone the way you want, well, you know, sometimes things happen for a reason. Or maybe things don't happen for a reason at all, but there's always tomorrow and it's never too late to achieve something. It's never too late to go back and try another degree or take another training course, and it's never too late to say yes, and it's never too late to say no, and it's never too late to say, ‘You know what, I’ll come along and talk about Healthcare Science Week’, for example. Take the opportunities when they're there and enjoy them because, at the end of the day, that's what this is about. It's about helping the patients and enjoying the journey and making sure that you're making a difference for them and for yourself.

The question I get asked probably most of my role is, ‘Do you just sit around watch people sleeping?’ Now, sometimes we do just sit – well, there's no ‘just’, there's never a ‘just’ in sleep medicine. Sometimes we do watch people sleeping but there's so much to do. I wouldn't say there's a typical day in sleep medicine, but it's very varied. So, there's the science part of it, which is brilliant. There's the patient contact part of it, which is brilliant. And then there's the other part of it, which would go with every job – the paperwork, the telephone, the losing your pen – sort of all that part. So, maybe not a typical day but a varied day, and when you get to the end of your shift, you know you've put a hard day and you always know that you're going to go home with having had a good day, but you tend to sleep well at night.

What are the most important skills to do my job well? That's a tough one. I think having confidence in yourself. You have to be confident that you can learn. I think if you can learn to be confident, because not everybody is straight off the bat, learning to be confident in yourself, learning to be confident working with others. I think you have to be able to have the confidence to be able to deal with patients, who are coming to you possibly having seen lots of different specialities.

Sleep is more well-known now than it has ever been, but it's still actually, in terms of a discipline, still very young. We're maybe only looking at about 70 years ago that we first found out about rapid eye movement sleep, which is one of the, probably the better-known, areas of sleep. That's when you're dreaming. Your eyes move around the place and it's the episodic dream, when you wake up in the morning and you've been chased by a chicken and you think, ‘Gosh, that was crazy’. So, people are, sort of, more aware of it now, but it's still not the most common area of medicine. People can have a sleep disorder and have been around lots of different departments, not knowing what's going on, becoming more scared and more frustrated as it goes on, so sometimes you'll be dealing with patients who are really anxious and really worried, and you have to have the confidence of dealing with those patients.

So, you're dealing with the patient, you're dealing with their partners or their family, you're dealing with the science aspect of it, you're dealing with the consultants, you're dealing with the—so, it's a multi-disciplinary team we work in. We have nursing colleagues, admin staff, medical team, so you have to be able to work within that team. You have to be confident that you can interact with all of those different people at any given time. As well as doing that, you've got the phone ringing, because you've got somebody on the ward needing help with another patient who needs an immediate sleep study or needs you to give them answers about a study that's been performed, asking questions about treatment for that patient. So, you need to know that you can deal with things that happen <clicks fingers> just like that, and if you have that confidence in yourself, that you can learn, that you can be calm, because actually what you need to do you need to be able to be calm and think, ‘I can do this’, then then you're halfway there.

Communication skills are very important. Being able to communicate both verbally and in the written form: giving presentations, sometimes, presenting a patient to another handover to other staff members. And all these things can be daunting to some patients – I beg your pardon – to some people, and they would look at the job description and think, ‘Oh my goodness, I just couldn't do that’ and you know, ‘That's it, I couldn't apply for that role because I wouldn't have those skills’. The one thing I would say to you is, don't write yourself off at that point. If you think you could do every other aspect, if you have the skills, if you have the knowledge skills, if you know you can learn, if you know that you're willing and able to put in the hard work and the graft to get the science and learn the protocols and the standing operating procedures, then it's up to people like me to work with you to get you the skills to do the rest of the job. That's on me, to help you achieve that. So, if you want to come and work in sleep medicine or audiology or respiratory or any of the other areas, any of the other healthcare sciences, but you think, ‘Oh, I can't do it’, ‘I don't have the confidence’ or ‘I don't have the ability to—the communication skills yet’, see it as a ‘yet’, because that's where we come in. That's where your new colleagues in the NHS, who've been doing this, that's where we give you those skills and then help you build on them. So, always think of things as a ‘yet’ or a ‘not yet’ and work from there.

What helps me organize my time and my work is my trusty diary, that I have here for doing this. And we—in our department, we use a rota, so we know each week what each member of the team is going to be doing on a given day, and we work as a team. So, we're working on our individual tasks, but we very much will step in and help each other, and I personally use a lot of Post-It notes. I like to plan. There's only so much planning you can do in your role because you never know what's coming through the door, you never know what the next phone call is going to hold or the buzzer system, patients—even though we don't operate a drop-in system, things just appear in front of you. So, we plan for what we can in our diaries, with meetings, we use a lot of our email systems to, you know, things pop up. A lot of the time things just appear, and you have to, which is another aspect of the job, you have to be able to turn your day on the head sometimes. So, you can go in with a plan of ‘I’m going to do this, this, this and this today’, and then you don't get any of that done because other things have landed on it. So, you have to have a lot of timekeeping skills, but you also have to be able to juggle them and, to be honest, my to-do list never seems to get any shorter, but I do tick a lot of things off.

I didn't know anything about healthcare science before I joined the NHS. I knew about things like physiotherapy and radiology, and I don't think that they actually come under the term healthcare science, I believe they are allied health professionals. It was only when I joined sleep medicine to do my PhD that I was aware that there was these people sitting, analysing studies, and I thought they were part of the research team. So, I go in there and you introduce yourself, as you do, and they're like, ‘No, we do all the analysis of the sleep studies, and we look at what we call these limited studies, and we set up all the bedrooms’, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness’. So, that was the same day I went in for my PhD interview and I remember actually genuinely thinking, ‘Well, if I don't get that, I’m coming back, I’m looking out for a job here, because this is this is amazing’, and thankfully I was I was offered my PhD.

But very, very quickly, when I got there, for me the two merged. I wouldn't—the physiology side of sleep medicine captured my heart as much as the research did and when I finished my PhD, I knew I didn't want to leave sleep medicine. And I was so lucky that a role pretty much immediately had—it was just timing that my role appeared, and I applied, and I became part of the team immediately. It was walking in, it was the hand-meet-glove, it was just that perfect fit and I’ve never left. That's 23 years I’ve been there and as I’ve worked in that, I’ve sort of, the whole of my sleep team have sort of melded into the healthcare science, because we were a little bit of an unknown quantity when I started and we've grown with the role, our roles, and we've grown with healthcare science.

I think healthcare science as a genre, if you like, is becoming more well-known, but I’ll still tell people, ‘What would you do? Well, I’m a healthcare scientist’, and they sort of have this blank look like they don't know what it is, and I will spend lots and lots and lots of time telling anybody who'll listen about healthcare science. Or people say, ‘I work for the NHS’, and the first two questions you get: ‘Are you a nurse?’ or ‘Are you a doctor?’, and it’s like, ‘I’m a healthcare scientist’, and it is this blank look. And then I’ll fill them in, and they go, ‘I’ve never heard of that role before’, and I think that's what's missing. Twenty-something years ago, you think, ‘Well, maybe it was acceptable not to know about this role in healthcare science’, because it wasn't on social media, there wasn't the presence of the world as it was just now, out there, so for all these people to know each other all over the world. I mean the world's such a small place now, isn't it, with all the communication.

But I think now it's such a different a different world and for people not to know that there's this amazing, sort of, science network within the NHS from labs right down to sleep medicine, running 24-hours-a-day. I just think it's amazing, and a little bit sad, that people still don't know about healthcare science, and that it's under—I suppose probably it is understaffed, it'll be underutilised in some ways and, yeah, getting the message out there that it's a brilliant thing to do. But no, I didn't know anything about it and I just, I am very thankful that it just happened to work out the way that it did, because my life would probably have been very different had I not happened to go in for that interview this day, or that day rather, because goodness knows where I would be now.

What do I enjoy most about my job? What do I enjoy most about my job? I find that really difficult to answer. I love my job, and I do, I genuinely mean that. I love sleep medicine. Oh gosh, there's so many different aspects to it. I love working with my colleagues. I think it's like they say, you know it's probably, any job's probably only going to be as good as the people you work with, so it's always nice to have people that you can say are friends as well as colleagues, isn't it? But the whole point of working for the NHS is to make a difference to the patients, and I genuinely do feel at the end of the day, when I’ve left my shifts, that I have helped to make a difference in people's lives.

Sleep medicine is the one area that everybody could probably come to see, in their entire life, if that makes sense. So, not everybody will need to go and see an orthopaedic surgeon or have an issue with something orthopaedic or a neurologist or a cardiologist, but everybody will have at least one issue with their sleep. Now it might be just a short-term—some people I’ll have go through a little period where they get stressed, or maybe exams coming up and they can't sleep, or some people that goes on a little bit longer. People who have issues sleeping too much, people who are working too much and can't get to sleep, have enough time to get to sleep.

So, everybody knows what it's like to either sleep too much or not sleep at all, and for some people that becomes a clinical issue. And so, everybody knows what it's like to have that horrible feeling that you just haven't slept well, so imagine feeling like that all the time. Imagine having that horrible feeling that you just don't have the energy to just live your best life, as they say, and in sleep medicine we can make a difference, almost overnight, for some patients. And that is, I mean, I feel a little bit [of] pride, but we have patients who literally we treat overnight, and they wake up the next morning and I mean, without, sort of, you know, patting ourselves on the back too much, they are a different person. I mean they literally go to bed one night feeling terrible and wake up the next morning and. you know. I’ve had patients jump out of bed and be like, ‘Oh my goodness, I haven't felt this way in 20 years’. It's really hard when you have patients that are doing that and feeling so much better on the phone going, ‘You know, you've changed my life’, ‘You've saved my marriage’, you know, ‘You've helped me keep my job’, and obviously it's not us that’s doing this, it's the treatment, but we've been a little bit of that process. We've been involved in getting the patient in, doing these tests, analysing these tests, reporting on it.

Obviously, that goes to the doctor who makes the clinical decision and then they, you know, get started on the treatment. But we play a really vital role in that, and it's our clinical skills and our clinical knowledge, because if you miss a little bit, that has—of something—that can have a huge impact on somebody's life. And knowing that you've done, and that you’ve done that to the best of your ability, and you've done it properly, and that what you have done has had that massive effect in somebody's life – when they're, you know, when they're on the phone, crying, and seeing how thankful they are, and you have the family in the background shouting thank you too – I mean you just you can't not leave your department with a smile on your face. You know, that is literally life-changing, and it changes your life too, a little bit. You know, you get home when you're, you know, somebody says, ‘How was your day today?’, ‘It was fine, you know. I had a good day’.

And, yeah, that's probably the best part of my—or that's the thing I like most about my job, is knowing that myself and my colleagues can help people change their lives, and how can you have a better job than that? I mean, how do you beat that? How do you beat knowing that you've helped somebody be the best person—be the best version of themselves and have the chance of them living their best life, just because of something that you've done in your day? I mean, yeah, that's the favourite part of my job.

So, what advice would I give to others thinking about applying for a role in healthcare science? I think it's really important to have a look at the job descriptions. There's a lot of exciting roles in healthcare science. Obviously, I think sleep’s the best – come and work in sleep medicine – but have a look at all the job descriptions. Obviously, if anybody's looking at this, they'll obviously have looked at the science, they'll have that background, so they already have that passion of the science aspect of it, but look at the job descriptions, because in healthcare science it will have that range. We have the labs; we have all the different –ologies. So, there's the physical life sciences, there's the respiratory, sleep, but there's going to be different areas for different people. Which is the brilliant thing – there's not just two or three – there's a whole aspect of them.

So, go out there and have a look at the different areas, because you'll find your fit – it's not necessarily one-size-fits-all. Find the area that you're most interested in, but don't just think, ‘Right, okay, I’m going for this area’. Make sure you have a look round because there's the areas in healthcare sciences – it's bigger than you might think it is. I think that would be the thing to say. It's not just one or two things: you can work in the labs, or you can do bloods – which are vital, look at them, absolutely look at them, because we desperately need people to do them as well – but I think when people hear about healthcare science that's probably where they go, because that's what people see on television. You don't often see people going down for respiratory tests or necessarily going off to have their hearing checks or going into sleep medicine on the programmes that are, you know, on TV a lot of the time, but everybody sees people getting blood taken.

So, I think, just be aware of what's out there. Contact people: so, contact the people within the role, contact people like me, ask questions. Job descriptions are great, and they will give you an aspect of what's going on, but if you want to know what it's really like, then ask. That's what we do, that's why we're there. We want people to come into NHS. We want new people to come and work with us. Our departments are only going to keep going if we grow and we attract new people. We need new people to come and work with us, so that we can keep our departments going, keep the patients that we already have – they're with us, we need to make sure that they're being looked after – but we also need people to hand that baton on to have them trained, so that in 20 years’ time they're taking on new people too. 

So, it's really important that each of the areas has people joining them, and that all of these healthcare sciences, we need to work as a team. We need to make sure that we have this unit that we can have—a team that we can rely on, that we can bounce off of, and I think it's important for people coming into that, to be wanting to be part of that team. I think that would be excellent to, you know, find out, you know, ‘Is sleep medicine for me? You know what I’m just going to go and find out if there's someone in the department’.

Now, obviously, we're sort of recording this during the, sort of, COVID – it's at the latter stages, so there's still some restrictions – but we can still obviously still talk on the telephone. But things are lifting a little bit more, so there's a little bit more movement now for people to be coming in, on rounds, and looking, and keep an eye on the NHS, sort of, job sites, because it gives you an idea of what comes up in healthcare science. It lets you see what the job progressions are as well, so you can see what the movement is. You can see where the jobs are, so you know, you train in an area and it lets you move, that's the other thing. You know, you train in it and it doesn't mean that you're necessarily stuck in one place. You have the ability to move around Scotland, or around the UK, and I think that's a good thing as well. It gives you knowledge that, you know, you could have a career, you can move around.

So, think of it as a career. Think about where you want to go. Look at the areas of science that you're interested in, but don't discount other areas, and come and talk to people like me, because we love to talk. You'll find that people in the area of healthcare science they work in love to talk about their own areas, because obviously you do – it’s the area you work in – and everybody's a bit, you know, we all like your own, and we'll probably tell you it's the best place to work. So, make sure that you talk to a few areas, if you're interested, for more than one—because we'll all tell you that our areas are the best, but sleep medicine really is the best.


How did you find out about the healthcare science opportunity?

I found out about working in healthcare science when I did my degree in psychology, and I came into working in the NHS via that role. I didn't know healthcare science existed when I was at university, it was when doing psychology placements that I really realised that there’s this whole other world that’s in the NHS – and I fell in love with it.

Where did your NHS journey start?

My NHS journey started with my degree in psychology, and I decided to join the healthcare science team because I thought it was such an important and vital role.

What helped you to achieve your career goals?

Quite a few things have helped me achieved my career goals. I’ve been dedicated to making sure that I knew what I wanted to do and setting myself a path. Planning out my path and setting goals with my line manager has allowed me to go and aim for them and try and make them happen.

Also, taking opportunities when they’re there and enjoying them because that’s what it’s all about: helping the patients and enjoying the journey and making sure that you're making a difference for them and for yourself.

Tell us about a typical day in your role

I wouldn't say there's a typical day in sleep medicine, it's very varied. I think some people think we just sit around watch people sleeping. There is some of that, but there's the science part of it, which is brilliant. There's the patient contact part of it, which is brilliant. And there’s the other side – the paperwork and the admin – which comes with every job.

So, maybe not a typical day, but when you get to the end of your shift, you know you've put in a hard day. But there’s a massive sense of achievement as well.

What are the most important skills for your job?

I think having confidence. You must have confidence in yourself. You must be confident you can learn. You need confidence to be able to deal patients, who are coming to you possibly having seen lots of different specialities.

Sleep is more well-known now than it has ever been, but it's still actually very young, in terms of a medical discipline. People are more aware of it now, but it's not the most common area of medicine. So often people come to you after having been around a lot of other departments. They are anxious and worried, and you need to be confident to deal with these patients.

Communication skills are also important. You need to be able to communicate both verbally and written down, as you will be communicating with patients, their families and other colleagues.

The one thing I would say is, don't write yourself off if you don’t feel like you have all the relevant skills. If you think you could do every other aspect – if you have the knowledge, if you know you can learn and if you know that you're willing and able to put in the hard work to learn the science – then it's up to people like me to work with you to get you the skills to do the rest of the job.

Did you know a lot about healthcare science before you started?

I didn't know anything about healthcare science before I joined the NHS. I knew about things like physiotherapy and radiology – which are allied health professionals rather than healthcare science fields. It was only when I joined sleep medicine to do my PhD that I discovered what it was all about.

But very quickly, the physiology side of sleep medicine captured my heart as much as the research did and, when I finished my PhD, I knew I didn't want to leave sleep medicine. I was fortunate that I found a role almost immediately, and it was the perfect fit.

What do you like most about your job?

I find that difficult to answer. I love my job, and I genuinely mean that. I love sleep medicine. I love working with my colleagues – it's always nice to have people that you can say are friends as well as colleagues.

But the whole point of working for the NHS is to make a difference to the patients, and I do feel at the end of the day, when I’ve left my shifts, that I have helped to make a difference in people's lives.

Everybody knows what it's like to have that horrible feeling that you just haven't slept well, so imagine feeling like that all the time? So, when somebody tells me that I’ve helped them become the best version of themselves, that’s the favourite part of my job.

What advice would you give to others thinking about applying for a role in healthcare science with the NHS?

I think it's important to have a look at the job descriptions. There are a lot of exciting roles in healthcare science. Obviously, I think sleep’s the best, but see what’s out there. Find the area you’re most interested in.

And contact the people, like me, within the role. Job descriptions are great, and they will give you an aspect of what's going on, but if you want to know what it's really like, then ask. You'll find that people in healthcare science love to talk about their own areas, and everyone thinks their area is the best. So, ask around, and find the area that works for you. But sleep medicine really is the best.