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New guidance hopes to boost popularity of psychiatry

Medical schools should integrate psychiatry into the curriculum as widely and early as possible

Mark Gould

Friday, 27 September 2019

The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for medical schools to improve students experience of psychiatry and raise the popularity of the speciality in order to meet rising demand.

The College says that there has been an unprecedented focus on mental health across the UK of the last decade and that these policy decisions and changes mean that there has never been a more crucial time to work in mental health.

Yet it says lack of suitably trained staff is widely recognised as one of the biggest risks to achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental health.

Between May 2010 and May 2019, the full-time equivalent number of psychiatrists working in NHS organisations in England at all grades increased by only 3.0%. Over the same period, the number of all other NHS doctors increased by 19.7%. 

Lack of staff is also illustrated by the “medical vacancy” rate across English mental health trusts which stood at 12.7% in the fourth quarter of 2018/19 - ranging from 10.0% in London to 14.6% in the Midlands and East.

The government’s ambitious plans for mental health, as well as the prevalence of mental illness, means that all future health professionals – including doctors in all specialties – will need to be equipped to provide appropriate support to people with mental illness.

Based on the findings of the research which included questioning medical students the College has developed four key recommendations* for medical schools to improve students’ experience of psychiatry:

  • Medical schools should consider revising the undergraduate curriculum in psychiatry to ensure it reflects what we can learn from medical students’ experiences; and integrate psychiatry courses into the curriculum as widely and as early as possible.
  • Working with placement providers, medical schools should organise high-quality undergraduate placements in psychiatry based on what we learned from medical students’ experiences.
  • Medical schools should develop and support a cohort of leaders within psychiatry taking a major role in undergraduate teaching and other educational initiatives.
  • Medical schools should develop and implement a range of enrichment activities to enhance students’ exposure to and experience of psychiatry.

In the forward to the guidance, Dr Kate Lovet, the Dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "Less encumbered by stigma than previous generations, more and more young people are saying they want to work to help others with their mental health. To fill the additional roles needed to deliver policy reforms to mental health services, we have an opportunity to tap into this interest and support all medical students to get a better understanding of psychiatry.

"Not all doctors are cut out for a career in the specialty – it takes a very special skill set to make it as psychiatrist. Whilst I would encourage every student to consider psychiatry as a career, not all will be suited to it.

"But all doctors need to have a good understanding of the scientific underpinnings of the speciality and a basic skill set in order to support people with mental illness, no matter what specialty they eventually choose. This practical guidance shows that medical schools across the country are already embracing this challenge and shares good examples of how students are being inspired to learn about better mental health care."


*Choose Psychiatry: Guidance for medical schools. The Royal College of Psychiatrists, September 2019.

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