Vow to train the next generation of working-class doctors

This article was taken from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/17/medical-school-vows-to-train-generation-working-class-doctors-sunderland

By Tom White at the Guardian News

‘Insurgent’ Sunderland medical school aims to break class barriers

A medical school at the University of Sunderland will be launched next year with the aim of breaking down social barriers to medicine and training a new generation of working-class doctors.

The university’s vice chancellor, Sir David Bell, likened Sunderland to an “insurgent” in medicine, since the school was established under the umbrella of government policy to widen participation in education.

The head of the medical school and professor of general practice and primary care, Scott Wilkes, has been a GP for almost 25 years. He knows the importance of raising the aspirations of disadvantaged young people, as the son of a fruit seller in Northumberland.

“Growing up, I would have fulfilled the widening participation metrics of the university,” he said. “I was a very motivated individual who was keen to pursue my interest in the sciences, but when I went to medical school I had no experience of medicine apart from as a patient or visiting ill relatives.

“Only 5% of the current intake into all medical schools come from the ‘widening participation’ background as there are a number of socio-economic barriers in place.

“For example, many schools ask applicants if they have spent time in GP practices or shadowed in hospitals, but these are linked to social privilege.

“We are disenfranchising many students who do get excellent grades and often show the qualities to become doctors.

“What we are doing at Sunderland medical school is removing those barriers and also using the university’s very mature outreach programme, which goes into the local schools to showcase what degrees, including medicine, are available.”

The challenge the university faces is not small. Last year only 4% of all new medical students came from north-east England. The region has the highest proportion of schools that have never sent a student to study medicine at university.

Wilkes is confident that, over time, these statistics can be changed. “I want people to have the belief that they can study medicine from whatever background they come from,” he said. “I also want doctors coming from those backgrounds because they have a far better understanding of the social factors that are prevalent in the areas they come from.

“It’s about being a socially responsible medical school and making it available to those who want to study medicine.”

After a bidding process, four other English universities have also been given the go-ahead by the government to open medical schools in Ormskirk, Canterbury, Lincoln and Chelmsford. Sunderland already has seven applicants for every place, starting with 50 in the first year.

Bell, who was previously chief inspector of schools and permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said the long-term goals were to address health inequality in the region and staff shortages in the NHS. One in every five GP jobs in the north-east is currently vacant.

Bell said: “Talent is everywhere but opportunity isn’t. We are trying to break into the areas where talent exists and what more dramatic way to do it than by getting them to study medicine.

“When you bring a new thing to market there can be some resistance or snobbery but we think it’s in everyone’s interest who cares about medicine to support all methods of training new doctors and medical staff. We don’t underestimate what we have to do to establish our brand in the market, but we can proudly see ourselves as one of the new insurgents in this area.

“And I think the interesting thing about Sunderland and all the other new medical schools is you get a sense the government was looking for a degree of disruption to the traditional medical school model.”

A similar scheme at the University of Glasgow resulted in almost 20% of the latest intake to the medical school coming from some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities.

Earlier this year the then health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced creation of the first new medical schools in England for more than a decade, as “part of the biggest ever expansion of our medical and nursing workforce”. The aim was to help the country deal with the challenges of having around one million more over-75s in 10 years’ time.

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