Publish date: 14 March 2024

What is your name, role and where is your place of work?

Ashley Eaton, GI Physiologist, Gastroenterology and Endoscopy Department, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals

Describe a day in the life of your role

A large portion of my day involves direct patient contact.  The department offers a range of diagnostic tests which vary in terms of the amount of time they take to perform, some lasting less than 15 minutes and others over 4 hours.  These tests include non-invasive breath tests to diagnose bacterial overgrowth, lactose intolerance and Helicobacter pylori infection, and invasive tests to assess patient’s oesophageal motility (how effective their swallow muscles are) and the amount of acid reflux patients experience.

Some of the more invasive procedures we conduct are oesophageal manometry and 24-hour pH studies.  Both tests involve catheters being placed nasally into the stomach.  During the manometry, pressure measurements are taken of the oesophagus and the lower oesophageal sphincter (area between the oesophagus and stomach) to ensure that all aspects of a patients’ swallow are co-ordinating as expected. If not, it can give an indication to where the problem lies which can inform treatment options, these range from medication changes to surgery.

A 24-hour pH test monitors the amount of acid reflux occurring over 24-hours, during which patients are asked to eat, drink, and behave normally.  They return the next day for the equipment to be removed and processed.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

Ever since I joined the department, I have been fascinated by the investigations carried out and the principles behind the tests.  To assess if a patient has an overgrowth of bacteria in their small bowel, you measure their breath samples.  We have many patients ask the question “how can you tell what’s going on in my bowel from my breath?”. I had those same questions at the start of my training and even now, having been in the department for over 14 years, I am still learning.  With new techniques, methods of reporting and equipment becoming available, the service is always evolving.

By the time a lot of patients are referred to the GI Physiology department, they have already undergone several diagnostic investigations, consultations, and had a number of other conditions ruled out.  This can often leave the patient feeling quite deflated.  Knowing that the results of the investigations can have a positive impact on the patient treatment options and improve their quality of life gives me a great sense of satisfaction in the role.

What was your career path to the position you’re in now?

I started at the Trust in 2010, my initial role was to support the qualified GI Physiologists and assist with investigations.  I was extremely fortunate to be offered the opportunity to complete a Foundation Degree in Healthcare Science (FDSc).  Alongside the FDSc I sat the Specialist GI Physiology exams.  This opened a further opportunity, and I was accepted onto the Gastrointestinal Clinical Physiology Degree (BSc) at De Montfort University.  I regularly travelled to Salford and Hull to gain experience of the investigations the service at Blackpool doesn’t offer. After completing all the academic, practical, and observational elements of the degree I graduated in 2014 with a first-class degree.

What is your biggest achievement to date?

I think one of the most significant things that can happen in a role like mine is to receive positive feedback from a patient. I remember the first time I received a card from a patient thanking me not just for carrying out the investigation and making her feel comfortable throughout, but for taking the time to listen to her and answer all the questions she had.  It just shows how important small gestures are to a patient and just listening can go a long way.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I would love to see more awareness of Clinical Physiology and other Healthcare Science roles not just within the hospital, but in schools and colleges.  Usually, the pathway into these roles requires achievement of certain A-Levels and without the knowledge of these roles existing at school age it is less likely that people will pursue a career in these fields.


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