BMA warns of research-mad medical schools

January 30, 2004

The British Medical Association has warned that medical schools' obsession with research is damaging teaching and is leading to serious staff shortages, writes Claire Sanders.

A meeting of the BMA's Medical Academic Staff Committee last week called for an open debate on a new funding model. It wants the model to reflect the fact that the burden of teaching students is increasingly falling to National Health Service doctors.

Michael Rees, chair of the committee, said: "More and more teaching of medical students is done by NHS doctors neither paid nor trained to do it.

We need an open discussion on how best to fund this."

He said that the BMA would not object if this meant a shift of funding to the Department of Health.

This would put the BMA on a collision course with the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, which strongly opposes such a move. It argues that DoH funding would leave it at the mercy of short-term NHS funding priorities.

Both the BMA and the CHMS are concerned at the shortage of medical academics. Figures released in the House of Lords this month revealed that there were at least 84 professorial vacancies in medical schools. The figure is based on a CHMS survey that showed a 33 per cent reduction in lecturer posts over three years.

Professor Rees said: "This is quite startling when you consider the increase in the number of medical schools and the increase in the number of medical students. We are being faced with a shrinking workforce. We have been saying for years that medical academic recruitment is in crisis - now it is almost terminal."

The MASC is preparing a paper examining how medical education could be changed. It is also writing to the Strategic Learning and Research Group for Health and Social Care, a high-level biannual meeting of top DoH and Department for Education and Skills officials, which is examining how health academics can best meet their obligations to patients, students and research.

Writing in BMA News this week, Professor Rees warns that research concentration could undermine the newly negotiated medical academics' contract.

"Moves to concentrate school staff profiles on the research-active, while removing teaching and clinical staff to NHS posts, will compromise the overall balance of teaching, research and clinical service work within departments, on which the structure of the clinical academic contract and its funding depends," he says.

He adds: "There are significant implications here for the continued payment of NHS clinical salaries to research specialists, and we would caution against schools moving in this direction without due care."

David Gordon, chair of the CHMS, said: "Any change in the funding model has to be appropriately managed. NHS doctors have always had a role in teaching medical students, and this is acknowledged through funding for student placements in the NHS."

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