Neill Roberts - Consultant Practice in Radiotherapy: Why shouldn't I be doing this?!

On World Radiography Day we are celebrating what it means to be a radiographer - a unique healthcare role where precision and innovation meets compassion. What better way to celebrate this day than with a guest blog from someone leading the way within therapeutic radiography! In this post, Neill Roberts highlights the crucial role of therapeutic radiographers and the positive impact of consultant practice across the patient pathway.

Neill Roberts, Consultant Radiographer in Breast Radiotherapy at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust & Sheffield Hallam University.

Reading previous Action Radiotherapy blogs has both informed and inspired me in equal measure. Being a ‘novice blogger’ myself, I approach this task with a good deal of trepidation. However, my message is simple: therapeutic radiographers should be valued now more than ever.

I admit my views may be slightly biased, but I say this not only as a consultant radiographer, but also as a regular tax paying member of the public. Like many of you I have had family, friends and colleagues relying on the expertise, dedication and empathy of radiography professionals who commit themselves every day to providing the best care possible to those unfortunate enough to be afflicted by cancer. This commitment is unwavering, regardless of the alternating priorities of government and NHS leaders on determining funding for healthcare, and funding for students training to enter the profession. Despite the current strain on resources, the therapeutic radiographer continues to play a key role in the cancer multi-disciplinary team (MDT). It is within this context, combined with an increasingly interconnected health service, both technologically and multidisciplinary, that the opportunity presents itself for an even greater evolution of the role where impact can be felt across a broader sphere of practice. You don’t need to take my word for it, the trend in advanced and consultant practice or ‘skill mix’ has been spreading for some time with reports now evidencing the impact of such roles across UK oncology services (CRUK workforce report and HEE Advanced Practice Framework).

How does my role have impact not only on the oncology service I work within but also on the new and aspiring radiographers of tomorrow?

My background as a therapeutic radiographer has followed a fairly traditional trajectory from initial qualification, through the various clinical grades of seniority, including a secondment to research radiographer and then advanced practitioner. There is no doubt that you need to be ambitious and conscientious to progress and develop the traditional therapeutic radiographer role but why shouldn’t the opportunity be available to those with the drive and motivation as well as the skill set? Radiographers are ideally placed to affect the wider clinical pathway and when in such a position, the rewards are many.

My view as a consultant therapeutic radiographer has always been to ask: why shouldn’t I be doing this?’ rather than deferring to the notion: ‘I shouldn’t be doing this.’ I’m not saying it has been or will be easy to continue to evolve the traditional role. I have endured my fair share of antipathy from those not as willing to embrace a different model of healthcare, but I believe one of the greatest attributes of those of us in these roles is in maintaining a self-awareness and empathetic outlook; providing evidence of our impact and engaging with others to ensure working relationships are complimentary. No better illustration can be given than my role as local principle investigator on two national clinical trials in breast radiotherapy. The FAST FORWARD study and the PRIMETIME study have the potential to be practice changing within their respective areas of breast cancer treatment, however, having non-medical staff acting as local principle investigator, tends to be the exception rather than the rule. So much so that the logistics of setting up the trial, from documentation and quality assurance processes to incident reporting are all geared to the medical doctor and some might tell you, tricky to change! It all comes back to the ideal placement of the therapeutic radiographer in the pathway; having built a rapport with the wider MDT, engaging key staff regularly and having the experience in the cancer site pathway provides the basis for affecting change and bringing others with you. In my case this momentum has opened other doors and I now sit on national trial management groups alongside oncologists, surgeons, pathologists and medical physicists.

If consultant therapeutic radiographer roles are created as intended, their impact can be felt across multiple spheres, from clinical practice through research and into education. Therapeutic radiographers are not only well placed to educate others on the many technical and process driven developments in radiotherapy for which they are responsible on a daily basis, but also on the fundamentals that they were taught during training, and for which many now have postgraduate and even doctoral level qualifications. My role directly impacts on the radiographers of tomorrow; not only in a teaching capacity at Sheffield Hallam University, but also in being visible, present and engaged with the students so that they know what career options are available to them. If I’ve done my job properly, it could help with their career development.

Having recently been a student again myself, completing the non-medical prescribing course, I felt proud to be sitting amongst a wide group of allied health professionals and nurses knowing that the care offered by radiographers is reaching further across the cancer patient pathway. With this acknowledgement comes the realisation that roles such as mine have the autonomy to impact and improve the patient experience further still.