Developing the pathology support worker


05 / 01 / 2012


Northampton General Hospital Trust is a district general hospital with 685 beds, serving a population of 334,533 with an annual budget of £227 million.

The pathology department has approximately 200 staff and an annual budget of £13.5 million. Pathology services include cellular pathology, molecular and clinical biochemistry.

What we did and why

Changes in technology and a shift towards a modernised healthcare science service identified a gap in the pathology workforce that could be filled by Band 4 associate practitioner roles. Financial restraints and movement towards an extensive 24 hour service required a more effective use of staff and a long term change of skill mix.

The Modernising Scientific Careers (MSC) programme identified a clear route for this group of staff with a standardised approach to developing roles and education programmes. Northampton became an early adopter for MSC and decided to implement a learning and development framework for Bands 1-4 in pathology as previously there had been no clear progression for support workers.

How we did it

Initially the trust engaged with strategic health authority workforce leads to identify workforce needs. It then began to develop a foundation degree for associate practitioners. To do this they obtained Joint Investment Framework (JIF) funding and worked with two local universities. HR helped to develop the job descriptions.

The posts were then advertised internally across the trusts within East Midlands. The decision to advertise internally was to provide existing staff with development opportunities.

HR liaised with the pathology laboratory, the JIF lead and the National Apprenticeship Service to produce the adverts and arrange an assessment day.

The trust then began to develop existing Band 2 and Band 3 staff into trainee associate practitioners and backfilled their posts with apprentices aged 16-18. On entry at Band 2, trainee associate practitioners were skilled to Band 3, progressing to Band 4 when qualified.

The associate practitioner roles were developed across all areas of pathology and occupational standards were used to maintain consistency.


Registered staff became protective about their roles. To overcome this, the roles and boundaries were discussed at joint staff consultation meetings, staff meetings and in 1:1 meetings. Gradually, registered staff began to recognise the benefits of the associate role.

Results and next steps

Associate practitioners have a greater knowledge base, more interesting roles, financial reward, greater confidence and more opportunities to develop their skills. The success has also encouraged others to develop.

The pathology department now has the correct level of staff performing the appropriate tasks. Now, registered staff have the time to carry out tasks appropriate to their knowledge and skill level. Changing the skill mix has maintained high standards. In the short term there have been no additional costs and long term cost savings have been made by replacing some Band 6 roles with Band 4.

Next steps:

The foundation degree is being amended to include all the healthcare science disciplines and is based on the practitioner programmes. This will enable the development of cross discipline and cross division roles that are required by changes in service delivery.

Tips for other trusts

  • Staff engagement is essential.
  • Ensure managers are aware of foundation degree content so  suitable roles can be developed.
  • Provide good support mechanism for the associate practitioners.

Further information and contact details

Joan Peel, Pathology Training and Development Manager, 01604 544012

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