Staff numbers in academic medicine and dentistry have reached crisis point as more clinicians turn to the National Health Service for an easier life, a survey has revealed.
According to the survey of clinical academic staffing levels published this week by the Council of Heads of Medical Schools, numbers of clinical lecturers in medicine and dentistry have dropped by almost a third since 2000, while clinical researchers have declined by almost a fifth.
It shows that recruitment problems reported three years ago have become significantly worse, with increasing numbers of medics and dentists opting for a full-time clinical career.
David Gordon, chair of the CHMS and dean of the faculty of medicine at Manchester University, said: "The number of obligations that a clinical academic has to juggle is likely to be a major factor. At many times in my career I have wondered how I could keep all the balls in the air."
The CHMS is calling for improved career structures for clinical academics and a fully funded increase of at least 10 per cent on existing clinical academic numbers.
At present, there are more than 200 unfilled posts in UK medical and dental schools, including 100 vacant professorial positions. Since 1997, the number of vacant chairs in these fields has doubled.
Professor Gordon said: "It is very difficult to know at which absolute minimum level we can operate. But all of us running medical and dental schools feel the staffing is very thin."
Figures for dentistry have remained static over the past three years despite a 14 per cent loss of medical academic staff over the same period.
But the report stresses that this is because dental school staffing is already at rock bottom.
This could prove problematic if the government pushes ahead with plans to expand student numbers in a bid to reduce dentistry waiting lists in the NHS.
Professor Gordon said: "It would be very difficult to establish a new dental school without gutting the existing system."
A typical clinical academic has to juggle research and teaching alongside a patient-care role in the NHS. The report suggests that these pressures are likely to be a major cause of recruitment and retention problems. It cites the length of time it takes to complete training, lack of flexibility in postgraduate training programmes and a lack of exposure to academia within postgraduate training as other possible reasons.
Michael Rees, chair of the British Medical Association's medical academic staff committee, warned delegates at the BMA annual academic conference this week that they might have to contemplate a future with no academic surgeons, anaesthetists or pathologists.
He said: "We deplore the human resources policies in some universities where academic staff have been subject to enormous pressure to achieve often-unattainable goals and then, if they fail, to have their jobs and livelihoods threatened."
The CHMS intends to continue monitoring staffing numbers on an annual basis. It hopes the survey will prompt other related disciplines, such as nursing, to produce comparable data.