Unlikely marriage of universities can ease NHS staff crisis

Creative partnerships between institutions can contribute to NHS training needs, research excellence and regional levelling up, say Brian Webster-Henderson and Martin Lupton

September 6, 2022
Female doctor and senior man illustrating news article about increase in admissions of women to Japanese medical schools
Source: iStock

The NHS is facing a staffing crisis.  The British Medical Association estimates that the current shortfall is more than 50,000 doctors. The shortage in the number of doctors is unevenly spread across the UK, mirroring the distribution of social deprivation and health inequality, with the North of England particularly affected – 11 per cent of NHS posts are vacant compared with 3 per cent in London.

But the number of medical students trained in the UK is capped by the government because of the high costs of training – a fact much discussed on A-level results day last month given that many straight-A students were turned down for medical school places.  In 2018, 1,500 extra training places were created but more are needed. The Medical Schools Council published a report last year highlighting shortfalls in the UK’s domestic supply of doctors and calling for a further expansion of 5,000 medical school places, with medical school places in England capped at 7,500 this year.

To address this challenge, two institutions with different histories and missions – the University of Cumbria and Imperial College London – have come together to create a new medical school in the north-west.

The University of Cumbria is a modern university created to help redress inequality of opportunity, and we have strategically positioned ourselves as an institution for and from Cumbria. Our well-respected Institute of Health and Institute of Science and Environment have quickly established a strong reputation in biomedical science, nursing, midwifery, and particularly in the training of allied health professionals including those working in physiotherapy, occupational therapy, diagnostic radiography and a growing local and national paramedic provision.

Cumbria’s graduates provide a skilled healthcare workforce in the region, but we were aware that something has been missing. We did not have a medical school, and specifically, we did not have a medical school that was focused on the needs of our local community, both in terms of education and research. So when Imperial College London approached the university about working together on areas of health and social inequality, it made perfect sense to explore a new partnership that would positively impact the health outcomes of our whole community – a new medical school for Cumbria.

Combining Imperial’s skills in medical education and Cumbria’s expertise in training nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals, plus our local knowledge about regional health inequalities, the new graduate-entry medical school in Carlisle will be steeped in the importance of teamwork, producing doctors who are embedded in their local community and ready to contribute to services across the region and beyond. 

This new medical school will also support school children and young people from Cumbria who aspire to a career in medicine to achieve their ambitions. While students are expected to apply from all over the UK, we hope many will have studied at Cumbria’s own Institute of Science and Environment or be from the local area. 

This is not just about expanding opportunities locally. Having students with experience relevant to Cumbria may help us study and research population and community health and, being based on the edge of the Lake District National Park, improve the health of rural communities.

However, because of the cap on medical student places, we have taken an innovative approach to creating a new medical school. Imperial will move 50 of its own home training places to the new school, redistributing them into an “under-doctored” area. In turn, some 50 overseas students who fund their own training will replace these numbers in London.  This will mean that any increased cost to the Exchequer will be minimised, and the reallocation of numbers to the north-west will directly support levelling up the region and increase the number of future doctors at a national level.

Our partnership will also focus on growing the University of Cumbria’s research capacity and capability. The university has a strong portfolio of research across multiple disciplines with an emphasis on equality and positive transformation of health and social outcomes, while Imperial has a global reputation for research that translates scientific advances into improvements in health across the world. In collaboration with local NHS partners and other local stakeholders, the new Cumbria School of Medicine will develop these new research opportunities, bringing education, innovation and employment opportunities to the north-west.

Eighteen months after the discussions began, we are now in the process of developing a curriculum that will deliver our goals in line with General Medical Council standards. The Cumbria School of Medicine will open in 2025 with a modest 50 graduate-entry student intake, and offer a bespoke four-year programme designed to train doctors who will help to improve health outcomes in Cumbria and the north-west.

At a time when we need to increase the numbers of medical practitioners, we need to think outside the box and not let the cap on places hold us back. It won’t solve every problem, but we firmly believe that it will help Cumbria really motivate people to stay and work in the area. At the same time, it will help expand the number of places in UK medical schools to meet soaring demand in the NHS. There has to be a starting point, and this is ours.

Brian Webster-Henderson is deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cumbria, while Martin Lupton is vice-dean (education) at Imperial College London’s Faculty of Medicine.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is excellent work. In a very similiar situation in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, the University of Worcester with our contingent partner Swansea University have created the Three Counties Medical School. We are ready to go...but despite support from our MPs and all the NHS Boards and Trusts locally there are no new funded medical places for UK students forthcoming. This is such an easy issue for the incoming Prime Minister to solve. Like other institutions we are inundated with outstanding applicants. Will we have to wait for a change of government or will a change of Prime Minister be sufficient?
I congratulate Cumbria and Imperial College for the ingenious way they plan to increase the number of trained doctors in the north west and encourage other Universities to copy this model. It is equally good to hear of Three Counties Medical School's plans. This is the sort of innovation the NHS and the Government should be promoting but it should not prevent the Government from raising the cap on funded places for medicine for the sake of the nation. The NHS will never be safe in the hands of the Tory party despite the ambition to deliver from Liz Truss. I wonder how she is going to "deliver" without funding more places for Medicine at out Universities or is this a new branch of the magic money tree? Places for Doctors and Dentists on University courses are massively over subscribed while at the same time these professions pay handsomely. It is clear that overseas students are prepared to pay for their own training. Does anyone know if prospective, domestic, UK medical students are also able to pay for a course? If they were, then this would seem to be a way of training more doctors who would be more likely to remain in Uk after graduating. Another way forward might be via Apprenticeship Degrees for Doctors. The NHS and private medical hospitals and organisations could be the employers. What a wonderful way of meeting the aspirations of those currently refused a place because of the cap on numbers by the Government. I am sure Michael Gove would agree this would be a good way to level up.
Lancaster University has an expanded one, and their campus is 4 miles from Cumbria's. I presume this is at Cumbria's other main campus in Carlisle?