Northern Ireland faces dearth in medical students

Author: Jo Carlowe
Northern Ireland faces dearth in medical students

More needs to be done to attract doctors to Northern Ireland, a new report reveals.

The review*, commissioned by the Department of Health (DoH) to determine the optimum number of medical student places required in Northern Ireland, and led by Professor Keith Gardiner, chief executive and dean of the Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency, recommends that at least 100 more medical students per year are needed to meet demand.

However, the DoH in its initial response to the 10 main recommendations made in the review, warns that expanding student numbers to the extent recommended would cost £30m a year, and see cuts to services.

Department of Health permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, said: “I very much welcome this review which provides a sound evidence base indicating the future level of medical education training that should be commissioned in Northern Ireland.

“The 10 main recommendations set out in this report are challenging. Medical education already involves significant levels of funding. It is vital to maximise the impact on healthcare in Northern Ireland of the very significant investment already being made in undergraduate medical education.”

Mr Pengelly continued: “The expansion in medical student numbers indicated by this report could cost up to an additional £30m per year – funding which would have to be found by making reductions in other areas of the health service.”

He added: “This report raises long-term, strategic and cross-cutting questions with major financial implications which will require decisions by ministers. In the meantime, I have today set out the Department’s initial view on the 10 recommendations of this report and indicated the actions that we will progress immediately.”

Actions the Department will progress include:

  • Developing measures to increase the attractiveness of Northern Ireland as a destination of choice for medical training and careers;
  • Increasing the supply of clinical academics from the field of General Practice;
  • Working in conjunction with GP Federations to deliver enhanced levels of teaching and training in Primary Care settings;
  • Publicising health and social care career options to young people from the age of 14
  • Promoting medical careers and seeking to increase the proportion of NI domiciles from under-served areas; and
  • Developing policy options to link bursary support to a minimum “Return on Service” within the HSC.

Commenting on the review, Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland Council, said: “The recommendations in this report do not come as a surprise to the profession. 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.”

He added: “If we are to increase the numbers of young people going into medical school to the recommended 445 we will also have to look at how we widen participation, how do we make sure that any young person, no matter what their background, is encouraged and supported to become a doctor. With a debt level of up to £100,000 on finishing training, many young people will simply decide not to study medicine.

“The idea of a bursary [recommendation six in 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. Working abroad, even for a short period of time, can greatly enhance a doctors’ skills; but we must make sure they want to come back to Northern Ireland to work and develop their long-term career.

“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.”

*Review of the Annual Number of Medical School Places needed in Northern Ireland. Department of Health, 2018.