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Friday, 29 September, 2000, 16:59 GMT 17:59 UK
Medical school's open doors
Ian Lauder
The first dean, Ian Lauder, is against top-up fees
By BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan

"Old boy's network, rugby club, ex-public school, a lack of empathy for their patients ..." a new student at a new medical school lists the negative stereotypes that have been associated with trainee doctors.

But the student, Niall MacDougall, hopes that the Leicester Warwick Medical School will mark the arrival of a new type of doctor, better equipped to understand the communities in which they will be working.

The medical school, brand-new this term, has opened its doors to its first ever intake, with a commitment among students and staff to bridging the gap between doctor and patient.

Clare Blackburn
Clare Blackburn wants the medical profession to treat patients as equals
"We want to put medicine into its social context, showing students how real people live their lives, creating a more equal relationship with patients," says senior lecturer Clare Blackburn.

As such, much of the course is based in the community and in terms of the recruitment of students, she says that the medical profession should reflect the social, gender and ethnic mix of the community it is serving.

There haven't been many doctors who have been on the dole - and if they're telling people to have a healthier diet, they need to understand the pressures

Niall MacDougall

At the centre of this year's row over elitism in universities was an application by state-school pupil Laura Spence to study medicine at Oxford.

And in the row that followed her rejection there were attacks on the social exclusivity of medical schools, which were accused of being even greater bastions of privilege than Oxbridge.

At the new school a third of students are from ethnic minorities, half are women, and a "high proportion" are drawn from state schools.

Niall MacDougall
Niall MacDougall says doctors need to understand the bigger picture of patients' lives
In medicine there is a very practical advantage to making sure that doctors are not socially isolated from their patients, says Niall MacDougall.

"There haven't been many doctors who have been on the dole - and if they're telling people to have a healthier diet, they need to understand the pressures," he says.

"We're hoping that we can break down these barriers," says another of the new intake, Josh Penfield. "We want to see people as people, not as illnesses."

The course is for postgraduates and Niall MacDougall says this will be a positive factor in creating a more rounded type of doctor, rather than the traditional medical course which takes school leavers.

"Deciding that you want to be in medicine for the rest of your life is a big decision to take when you're only 18. It can lead to a very closed outlook, where soon the only people you ever know are other doctors."

Josh Penfield
Josh Penfield says doctors are in danger of seeing an illness and not the person

The new medical school builds on the course previously offered by Leicester University - and the new Leicester Warwick department will be based jointly between the universities of Warwick and Leicester.

This split-site arrangement will be made possible by using video-conferencing, with two-way video channels set up at either end for students and lecturers to communicate.

As well as video links, there is a channel for transferring data, which allows lecturers and students to "share" online information and displays.

Medical schools are usually associated with higher education's grander institutions, so this will add prestige to a relatively young university such as Warwick.

And the first dean, Ian Lauder, formerly professor of pathology at Leicester University, is ambitious for the future of the new medical school - wanting to develop its research base and to provide places for training the extra doctors announced by the government.

Student debt

In terms of widening social access, he warns that universities charging extra "top-up" fees would be "the very last thing we'd want", as it would place an even greater burden of debt on students.

Professor Lauder says that at present there are students leaving owing up to 20,000 - and it is quite usual for debts of up to 10,000 - and adding to the cost of university would adversely affect applications.

The character of the new school has still to be shaped - with a new institution still waiting to develop its own traditions and history.

"When I saw the first student on the first day crossing the threshold, I have to admit that I felt a lump in my throat," said Ian Lauder.

"We're pioneers," said Niall MacDougall. "It's our chance to set a standard and to make a difference."

See also:

28 May 00 | Education
16 Jun 00 | Education
06 Jul 00 | Education
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