Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Access to medical school 'not widening'

Female doctor
Female medical students are in a majority

Government attempts to widen access to the medical profession are failing, according to a report by doctors.

The British Medical Association found that from 2003 to 2008, the number of medical school students from low-income backgrounds had risen by only 1.7%.

About one in seven successful applicants is from the lowest economic groups, despite those groups making up just under half of the UK population.

The Department of Health in England said further reforms were planned.

The government has invested £392m to widen access to the higher education system in general since 2001/02.

The BMA report examines successful applications to UK medical schools in 2008.

A combination of complex problems lies at the heart of this failure
Professor Bhupinder Sandhu
British Medical Association

It found there was also a gap in acceptance rates - 58% of applicants from the top socio-economic group obtained a place, but only 39% from the lowest group were successful.

However, the report said good progress had been made in attracting more applicants from ethnic minorities.

It also found women made up 56% of all accepted applicants to UK medical schools in 2008.

Women already form a large majority of staff in certain specialities - for example around eight out of 10 palliative care specialty doctors are women.

In contrast, only one in 12 consultant general surgeons in England are women.

'Underlying issues'

Professor Bhupinder Sandhu, chair of the BMA's equal opportunity committee, said: "Medical schools are still not recruiting enough students from low-income backgrounds.

"A combination of complex problems lies at the heart of this failure.

"There are clear underlying issues within education at school level, not just in the poor academic performance amongst low-income students, but also in low aspirations, with many seemingly feeling a career in medicine is simply unattainable."

Professor Sandhu said the increasing debts faced by medical students could also be a factor.

According to BMA research, the average estimated individual debt for a five-year medical degree course will reach £37,000.

She said: "This high cost presents a significant challenge to middle- and low-income families with children at medical school, especially at a time of recession."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, called for a review of how to address failings in the school system.

She said many students from poorer backgrounds did not feel that a medical career was a possible option for them.

She also said it was important that the NHS addressed the issue of work-life balance and flexible working to accommodate the growing number of women entering the profession.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "Many factors influence the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups taking up medical degrees.

"We have undertaken a review of NHS student support and are currently consulting on a proposal to widen eligibility for NHS funding to pre-registration medical and dental students from poorer socio-economic groups.

"The Medical Schools Council has several initiatives aimed at improving access. The MSC and BMA are represented on Medical Education England and we are working with them to make further improvements."

In Scotland, £15.7m has been made available in the current financial year to support students from deprived backgrounds in higher education.

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