Stuart Watson, medical physics

Turning smart ideas into practical ways to help patients

If research is the appliance of science to ideas, then medical physicists are the people who turn blue sky thinking into practical devices to improve patient care.

Salford Royal’s 40-strong team of medical physicists and clinical engineers plays a key role in patient safety, making sure the 30,000 plus medical devices and pieces of equipment used in the hospital are properly tested, calibrated and maintained – and are also being used correctly.

All sorts of equipment comes under their eagle eyes, from small handheld TENS stimulators to large X-ray CT systems, some relatively basic but much of it highly complex and specialised.

But they are also at the leading edge of research discovery, adapting, developing, constructing and inventing gadgets for clinical research.

Head of R+D Services Dr Stuart Watson is good humoured about the inevitable ‘Wallace and Gromit’ tag but there’s nothing ‘make do and mend’ about the devices he and his team construct – safety and reliability are essential and the regulations they meet are exceptionally stringent.

That said, it’s hard not to smile when the LED stimulator goggles a member of the team is designing for the Human Pain Research Group looks just like a pair from sci-fi film X-Men.

That’s just one of about 30 projects the team will be involved in this year. Some are relatively simple repairs and adaptations and can be turned round in a few days but many are hugely complex, including mechanical and programming work.

The starting point is often a meeting with a clinician who’s identified a problem with current devices or technology or who has a vision of a new system that will improve patient care.

Stuart and his team then work out what’s needed to translate that vision into a practical solution, build and test it. They work in all sorts of different areas – physiological measurement systems (such as blood pressure monitors, EEGs and ECGs), laser and other light-based systems, image and signal analysis and surgical devices.

So what sort of things might you see in medical physics? In a quick sweep of the workshop Stuart singles out:

  • A model of a trachea (windpipe) created in a 3D printer following a CT scan of the patient, so allowing the surgical team to prepare better for the operation.
  • A vibrating insole to assist researchers who are analysing patients’ gait.
  • A new system to analyse the performance of specialist sunscreens for people with photosensitivity disorders – patients who react unusually strongly to light.

Stuart said: “One of the really rewarding things about working in medical physics and clinical engineering is that you’re working with clinicians, scientists and industry so you’re in a good position to see what’s at the cutting edge and to spot things in one area that could apply to another – it’s fertile ground for developing ideas.

“We’re constantly looking for new technologies and how you can use things such as mobile phones to make processes better, cheaper or faster. Medical physics is one place where everyone has to move with the times.”