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Student places pledge needs investment

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CARTER: 'Any increase in places must be matched with sufficient funding'

Government pledges to boost the number of medical students in the UK must be matched by increased funding and resources, student leaders have said.

The Department of Health has said it will create an additional 500 places at existing medical schools from next year, with a further 1,000 places to be allocated through an open bidding process.

Described by ministers as the largest ever expansion of the medical workforce, the plan aims to train an extra 1,500 doctors a year from 2020.

As part of the plans, the additional places will be targeted at students from diverse social groups and those parts of the country that tend to struggle to attract qualified doctors. The BMA has for many years urged for action in this area, as argued in The Right Mix report it issued in 2015.

BMA medical students committee co-chair Harrison Carter said that the emphasis on widening participation through increased places was welcome, it was vital that these be accompanied by greater financial investment and corresponding increases in the number of foundation training posts.

He said: ‘The medical profession should represent the people it serves and it is a progressive step to encourage applications from under-represented groups … [so] It’s reassuring that the Government is committed to increasing access to medical school for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘Any increase in places must be matched with sufficient funding and resources to ensure universities are able to maintain educational standards and provide a high-quality educational experience for students. The number of foundation training posts must also be increased to reflect the larger number of graduating medical students so no doctor faces unemployment after qualifying.'

Mr Carter said medical students also needed clarity on whether newly qualified doctors would still be expected to work for four years or face repayment of their training costs. The proposal was widely criticised when made by the Government last year.

He said: ‘This proposal isn’t necessary as only a small minority of doctors do not complete their training in the NHS and it would only serve to worsen poor morale and potentially discourage students from choosing medicine. It could also be discriminatory towards women, who are more likely to take more career breaks than men.’

Today’s announcement follows a pledge made by health secretary Jeremy Hunt at last year’s Conservative Party conference to train up to 1,500 more doctors every year from September 2018.

During the same speech, Mr Hunt added that there would be a requirement for doctors to remain in the NHS for four years.

The Government's response to a consultation it launched earlier this year into increasing student places concluded, however ,that 'no general consensus' had been reached on how to implement the four-year requirement, and has called on HEE to review the measure.

A Department of Health spokesperson said it was inaccurate to suggest the plans were being scrapped and that ministers were continuing to explore ways of achieving ‘a return on taxpayer investment in training medical students’.

The BMA has questioned the concept of ‘conscripting’ medical students to the health service for four years pointing out that such a requirement could unfairly restrict and penalise doctors.

A financial impact assessment of the proposals published by the Government project an estimated average annual cost of £270m drawn from existing health funds.

With latest Government plans now proposing to reach this number from 2020, Mr Carter warned that the boost in training places would do little in the short term to relieve existing staffing pressures in the NHS.

He said: ‘Medical graduates tend to continue to train and work in the region of their medical school so patients will benefit from a focus on recruiting students to universities in rural or coastal areas.

‘[However] the students who will benefit from these new placements will take at least 10 years to train and become senior doctors so we mustn’t forget this promise won’t tackle the immediate shortage of doctors in the NHS, which could become more acute following Brexit.

‘As such we require equal focus on retaining existing doctors in high-quality jobs which will provide more immediate relief to an overstretched medical workforce.’

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