A review recommending an increase of 100 medical student places a year in Northern Ireland to tackle the severe shortage of specialist doctors does ‘not come as a surprise to the profession’, according to the leader of doctors in Northern Ireland.
BMA Northern Ireland council chair Tom Black was speaking in response to the Northern Ireland Department of Health’s Review of Medical School Places in Northern Ireland.
The review stated that longer life expectancy and increased demand on the health services meant the country needed to see a 50 per cent increase in the number of consultants and GPs in its health and social care service over the next 14 years.
The review also states that Northern Ireland’s medical workforce is dependent on doctors who graduate from the country’s only medical school, Queen’s University Belfast, which admits 271 students annually. It recommends increasing this number by 100 in time for the September 2019 intake at the earliest.
However, the Department of Health said such an increase would cost £30m annually, which would ‘have to be found by making reductions in other areas of the health service’.
Plans under way by the second university in Northern Ireland, Ulster University, to open a new graduate-entry medical school in the north west of the country were backed by BMA Northern Ireland. However, progress in opening the medical school has stalled due to the collapse of devolved government.
Speaking about the recommendations, Dr Black said: ‘We have said for some time now that a long-term view needs to be taken when assessing numbers needed within the medical workforce.
‘As the report points out, training to become a doctor can take up to 13 years, so while we fully support a new medical school in the north west and an increase in training places, that alone will not address our current issues.
‘The report points out that we need to do more to attract doctors from other parts of the UK to Northern Ireland. To do that we will need to see services transformed and parity of pay and conditions with doctors working elsewhere in the UK.’
Dr Black said more needed to be done to widen participation in medicine to encourage young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to consider a career as a doctor.
‘With a debt level of up to £100,000 on finishing training, many young people will simply decide not to study medicine,’ he said.
‘The idea of a bursary [recommendation 6 of the review] would need to be explored; while it seems a good idea on paper, the timing of the four years’ service and the potential for it to be split into sections should be examined.
‘The current political stalemate is a huge barrier to progressing change in our health system; doctors and patients need the transformation programme to be fully implemented and we need a health minister in place as soon as possible.’
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