A large dose of reality

Joanna Snicker reports on a medical careers service that aims to inject some sense into would-be doctors who may be choosing the wrong professional route

Few careers would seem to offer the same rewards as medicine: fulfilment, status, ex-citement and a good rate of pay - a job for life saving lives. A recent ICM poll found medicine the most respected occupation of all. So it is little surprise that medical schools are oversubscribed and insist on high grades.

But according to one young medic, too many ambitious teenagers have an idealised and romantic view of a medical career, for which they are ill-suited.

Drawing on his experiences in medical school and in hospital training, Haroon Mann, 28, has set up a careers service in a bid to educate potential doctors on the reality of a clinical career.

Dr Mann is training to be a surgeon at London's University College Hospital. But he admits he has had second thoughts about a career which sees him working a gruelling 60 to 80-hour week. And he says there are many like him.

"It's portrayed as a glamorous profession, full of emergency, hands-on experience. But at the end of the day there's a lot of routine work and very long hours - with a background of health service cuts. It's a very stressful job.

"Many doctors at my level are very disillusioned. But we just plod on because what else can we do? We've spent five years in medical school."

Dr Mann is keen to stress that he is not trying to put pupils off a medical career, but simply attempting to making them realise what it entails.

Last month, the service held its first sixth-form conference, with speakers from all areas of the profession.

While exuding enthusiasm for medicine, speakers warned the 200 students present to think carefully about choosing a medical career. "It's a wonderful profession," said Dr Elizabeth Paice, Dean Director at London University's North Thames Department of Postgraduate Medical and Dental Education. "But don't ask yourself if you want to go to medical school. Ask yourself if you want to be a doctor."

Professor John Foreman, former head of admissions at University College and Middlesex School of Medicine, London, advised students to gain some experience of medical work and to think carefully about where they would like to train. "Think about where you would like to live," he said. "London, for example, can be an isolating place if you're not a gregarious person."

The students also learned about other career choices open to those with science A-levels. There was good news for arts people, too, with many university medical schools now accepting an arts A-level (although chemistry is still a requirement).

Dr Paice, who herself had to change from arts to science A-levels at the last moment, welcomed this trend. "Medicine is so many things. If you want to be a general practitioner, physics A-level is hardly relevant. A study of English literature, on the other hand - the novels, the insight that sort of study gives you for an understanding of human nature - is more relevant," she said.

Welcoming Dr Mann's initiative, she also called for more appropriate careers advice in schools. "Many students have gone into medicine because their A-levels were good enough," she said. "And there is this assumption that if your A-levels are good enough this is what you must do. Nobody ever questions whether or not you want to be a doctor. They just say that with those A-levels you should. The schools see that as a real achievement. It is a feather in their cap when they get pupils into medical schools."

Dr Mann can be contacted at Alcombe House, 11 Hanson Street, London WC1P 7LC. Tel: 0171 436 2656

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