Medical schools' admissions policies are being revised in response to mounting evidence that there is an unwitting bias towards women and whites.
Research by David James, admissions sub-dean at Nottingham University's medical school, indicates that much of the apparent discrimination is occurring at the application stage. He believes that the ways in which non-academic requirements are assessed is the key issue, and he has started to address it at Nottingham.
Other medical schools are devising action plans, encouraged by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, and will watch the results of Professor James's recommendations with interest.
Previous research had shown there has been a trend towards more women - now just under two-thirds of admissions - while blacks and Asians were far more likely to fail to gain a place than their white counterparts.
Admissions tutors have been trying to identify the cause of this bias so they can stamp out any charges of discrimination and admit the best candidates.
Professor James said that academic qualification was not the issue as the medical courses are oversubscribed by applicants who meet the requirements. "Our responsibility is to get people in there who are safe as doctors, people who are able to work as part of a team, organise time, prioritise, empathise and care for people, and demonstrate many other personal attributes," he said.
He felt that asking people to list activities that illustrate these attributes had contributed to the unwitting bias, as women and whites tend to do better at GCSE and A level and to take part in more extracurricular activities.
This year, Nottingham asked its applicants to detail appropriate experiences from their lives, rather than just list activities that appeared to fit the requirements.
Professor James said his work would monitor this system's impact and gather evidence on which attributes related most to success in the medical world. This latter project could have a large impact on admission policies.
Regardless, there will be big changes in the admission process of United Kingdom medical schools in the next five years, predicted Stewart Petersen, professor of medical education at Leicester University Medical School and chairman of the national admissions selectors' group for medicine.
"There's no shortage of very well academically qualified applicants. We'd like to choose between them on the basis of other qualities that would make them better doctors," he said.