DH's proposed research elite could harm medical schools, deans say

August 5, 2005

Department of Health plans to concentrate research in five elite hospitals and clinical academies could "destabilise" some medical schools, deans warned this week.

A DH consultation document, which is part of a fundamental revision of the department's research strategy, proposes five academic medical centres to serve as the "nation's premier research hospitals". These would have "world-class strengths across a broad range of clinical areas" and would be selected competitively. A similar number of specialist academic medical centres is also proposed.

Katie Petty-Saphon, executive director of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, said: "One of our concerns is the possible destabilisation of certain institutions. Hopefully mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that this does not happen."

There are 23 medical schools in England (out of 30 in the UK) and 33 teaching hospitals. Some medical schools have links to more than one teaching hospital.

The poor performance of some medical schools in the last research assessment exercise has already shaken the system.

"British biomedical research is recognised internationally as being second only to the US. Unfortunately, this was not reflected in many RAE scores," Ms Petty-Saphon said.

The DH also proposes a new National Institute for Health Research. This would be a virtual institute responsible for managing the research infrastructure of the National Health Service.

Heads of medical schools and deans of nursing welcomed the consultation's recognition of shortages of clinical academic staff. A recent survey of medical academics found numbers down to 3,500 from 4,000 four years ago. The number of clinical lecturers has fallen by 30 per cent in the same period, the consultation notes. "Because of other priorities, universities appear reluctant to support those clinical academics who do exist," it says.

Paul Turner, executive officer of the Council of Deans of Nursing, welcomed the proposal to review clinical academic careers for nurses and allied professionals.

But he warned against over-concentration of funds in a few academies. "The consultation document also proposes reinforcing and expanding research networks. We very much support this and would not want to see funding switched from networks to academies."

The DH is restructuring research so that patients, health professionals and policymakers can all be better informed.

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