Medical schools should positively discriminate in favour of male students to boost their numbers and avert a staffing crisis, a senior medic said this week.
The British Medical Association medical students conference will today debate a number of motions calling for measures to increase the number of male medical students.
Peter Holden, a member of the GP committee of the BMA, told General Practitioner magazine this week: "There is a perfectly sound case for considering biasing entry."
But Robert Boyd, chairman of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools (CHMS) and principal of St George's Medical School, said: "It would not be lawful to discriminate in favour of men. That is not an option."
Figures from the Royal College of General Practitioners show that women work for an average of 24 years while men work for more than 31. More than two-thirds of doctors in training in general practice are women.
Women also make up an increasing proportion of the hospital workforce, and the Royal College of Physicians last year called for more flexible working patterns.
Tony Mathie, the RCGP workforce planning lead, said: "I think Dr Holden has flagged up a timebomb."
He said that he interviewed many young women keen to be doctors but that they needed to be "sensitised to the reality of being a doctor".
"The normal working pattern of a trained doctor is incompatible with family life," he said.
But Helen Goodyear, secretary of the Medical Women's Federation, said: "To start discriminating against women is to go back a century. Although the number of women is increasing in medical schools, traditionally the balance has always been in favour of men. Only 4 per cent of consultant surgeons are women, and women are still not getting to the top of the profession in equal numbers."
In 2001, 40 per cent of the intake to medical schools was male, compared with 46 per cent in 1996. Last year, just per cent of accepted applicants were white males.
Sir Graeme Catto, president of the General Medical Council and dean of the Guy's, King's and St Thomas's Medical School, said: "Fewer white males apply, and their academic qualifications are less good than other academic groups."
The medical students conference will debate the motion from Birmingham medical school: "That this conference believes that more should be done to encourage an equal balance of male and female students entering medical school, as the increase in women spells trouble for doctors' numbers in the future."
Rafik Taibjee, deputy chair of the conference and Birmingham's representative on the medical students committee, said: "Because male students have lower A levels and do less extracurricular activities, medical schools should look for other attributes."
Professor Sir Graeme said: "Australia has corrected the male-female imbalance by moving away from traditional entry criteria and adopting aptitude testing. This... has the advantage of identifying suitable applicants from non-traditional, often deprived backgrounds. A number of medical schools in this country are now adopting this type of approach."
Michael Powell, executive secretary of the CHMS, said: "It is important that medical students reflect the population as a whole."
A spokesperson for the Royal College of Physicians said: "In our report Women in Hospital Medicine , we surveyed 337 doctors and found that male doctors also wanted increased flexibility. This should not just be seen as a female issue."
Is it a waste to train women as doctors? Join our common room debate on www.thes.co.uk