Medical schools face a crisis recruiting top researchers to clinical chairs. An unpublished survey reveals that at least 74 of the 401 established positions in the United Kingdom are vacant.
A general lack of quality candidates is being blamed for part of the shortfall, which has risen from 54 in the 1997 survey. Surgical positions are particularly unpopular, with many posts receiving just one applicant.
The British Medical Association, which undertook the research jointly with the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, called for a number of measures to persuade the best individuals to pursue clinical academic careers. They feared the high demands placed on professors by the NHS and universities put many off.
Health minister John Denham said he was still seeking the detailed statistics needed to gauge the scale of the problem but that it was possible to take action on a local level to make positions more attractive.
He told the House of Lords science and technology select committee: "In a number of areas the particular issue of pressure on individuals is being addressed through the proper use of departmental planning and a shared approach by the NHS and university sector."
The BMA/CHMS survey of 17 of the UK's 25 medical schools, carried out in September, has yet to be passed to the Department of Health. It found that of the 74 chairs recorded as vacant, just under half had been so for more than a year.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "The numbers of quality candidates have been decreasing and shortlists for positions are shorter than we might hope for."
The report quoted medical school recruiters, many of whom believed action was vital to restore the situation.
One said: "Recruitment will become more difficult as academics struggle to meet the conflicting demands of the (NHS) trust and the university." Potential candidates were put off by a combination of the high work pressure, low income compared to private practice and the demands of clinical practice, according to Colin Smith, chairman of the BMA's medical academic staff committee.
"It is a crisis - an empty chair means there's no academic guidance within that discipline and it is crucial for the medical schools to reverse this trend," he said.