Medical schools want to cut out the bias

6th August 2004 at 01:00
The medical profession is the latest to target schools in an attempt to end its "horribly middle class bias". It is also wants to head off staff shortages - using psychometric testing to attract those with the right personal qualities.

A new project is specifically aimed at encouraging pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Only 1.8 per cent of those accepted to study medicine are from unskilled households.

The Working in Health Access Programme (WHAP) acknowledges that medicine has a particular bias towards white middle class students from skilled backgrounds, both in applicants to medical school and in those selected. It wants to raise awareness that for many pupils becoming a doctor is not impossible.

This is the first time Scotland's five medical schools, in Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrew's, Aberdeen and Dundee, and the Institute of Education at Stirling University have collaborated on a project to drive recruitment.

Funded by a strategic change grant from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and NHS (Scotland), WHAP is specifically focusing on medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry. But a broader aim of the two-year pilot is to encourage pupils more generally to consider university, or any healthcare field, as an option.

The project is targeting 3,000 14 and 15-year-old pupils from 59 Scottish schools that do not, traditionally, send significant numbers into higher education (fewer than 30 per cent). This includes inner city as well as rural and remote schools.

An ageing population and a declining number of healthcare professionals have led to fears of an approaching crisis within the health service, making recruitment a priority.

"The NHS, if it is to function as it does at the moment, will need to recruit a significant proportion of school-leavers into its various parts," Professor Mary Ann Lumsden, chair of the management group which runs the project, says.

Pupils, specifically those sitting five or more Standard grades at Credit level, have been sent questionnaires to get a feeling for the barriers preventing them from applying to medicine. Psychometric testing will be used to help select those with the right qualities to work in healthcare.

Medical mentors - undergraduates - are assisting in clinical skills training open days and going into secondary schools for interactive workshops with pupils. But parent involvement is also seen as vital.

Ross Queen of Glasgow University, one of WHAP's medical mentors, said: "A greater percentage of students from the higher socio-economic groups and particularly private schools enter elitist medical professions. This is not to do with intelligence or ability, but rather opportunity."

The WHAP project calculates that people are twice as likely to be accepted to medical school if they are from a skilled background and the likelihood of an applicant being accepted to medical school generally declines with their socio-economic background.

But the British Medical Association recently stated that increasing the number of applicants to medical school from students from less advantaged backgrounds is of primary importance to redress the social imbalance.

Professor Lumsden said: "Often pupils don't think about medicine because all they see is five As at Higher level, long training and the need to be middle class.

"They are turned off medicine, if they even think about it for two seconds, and many don't know about the health service apart from nursing, so we are trying to gradually introduce other health careers. If someone really isn't suited to medicine, we can encourage them very positively towards something else."

She added: "Part of this project is to broaden our horizons. At the moment we are not in a position to amend our admission criteria, but as a group of universities we are beginning to develop foundation courses whereby those who don't have the opportunity of doing five Highers would still be able to make the grade to get into medicine."

A practising clinician in obstetrics and gynaecology for 25 years, Professor Lumsden said: "I have felt a few times that had a patient been born into different circumstances they could have done something completely different with their lives because they had an innate intelligence.

"Even though some are potentially very bright and do very well in Standard grade, they somehow don't go on to do any Highers or the right Highers.

This is where I hope we will have a significant input."

The two-year pilot project is approaching the end of its first year but is likely to be extended.

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