Are London medical schools really the best?

A London medical student looks at the advantages and disadvantages of studying medicine in the city

December 14 2015
University College Hospital

When you apply to medical school there is the unspoken idea that the London medical schools are best. With three of them consistently in the top ten for medicine in university league tables it’s unsurprising ‒ they boast high levels of research, wide catchment areas for placements and some of the brightest and best lecturers and clinicians to learn from. The BMA is right around the corner from UCL, the Royal Colleges are scattered throughout London and the deaneries you train in are the most oversubscribed for training places every year. They attract students from all over the world and even have their own medal for the medical student that achieves the highest mark- the London Gold Medal Viva.

It’s not just the teaching standard that’s perceived to be higher either. The extra-curriculars are even more tempting because you’re in such a busy city where there are medical and non-medical events most evenings. UCL hosts the InspireMedicine conference run by students every year; 70 per cent of research for the NHS is done in London and students are often involved. Conferences run from the Royal Colleges, from the Royal Society of Medicine, from the masses of nearby hospitals nearly every day. You have the BMA, the British Library and RSM all offering books and help for studying.

Forty thousand medical professionals are trained here in London every year: why?

Yes, we get to see a variety of patients and conditions you probably wouldn’t see in smaller cities, but the problem with London is the amount of clinical contact you do get. Whilst a lot of universities boast clinical contact from day one, it happens less frequently in earlier years in London medical schools because of the sheer amount of students they have to place. Wide catchment areas sound great when you think of the amount of different styles of teaching you’re going to see and the breadth of experience you’ll have, but it doesn’t seem so great when you’re based in Chichester and having to pay rent for two places at once.

You’re paying the same fees as everyone else for a course that will afford you the same title as everyone else with the tiny added bonus of being able to brag that you trained in London. I don’t know what the statistics are for London trained F1s getting their 1st choice of deanery and placement, but is it worth the extortionate amount of money you pay to afford to train in one of the most expensive cities in the world?

I wouldn’t change choosing UCL for the world. I chose it because I would get to do a BSc in Immunology alongside my MBBS‒ but if another medical school could have guaranteed me that, I would have probably considered it more. My mum, seeing that I was applying to two London universities, tried to convince me out of it because she knew medicine was competitive and London even more so- and she has no experience with medical training whatsoever.

There are a million and one reasons to choose a university to train in.

Is it near home? Does it offer prossection or dissection (body parts or whole body?) How much does accommodation cost and can you afford it? What is the feel of the city like? Could you spend five or six years here? I don’t think London’s dominance in the university league tables, and the implication that London is better should come into it. Prestige on a table means nothing when you’re away from home in a massive city wondering if you will be able to afford your next rent payment. The possibility of getting involved in a research project is meaningless if you don’t go out there and get yourself involved.

There’s also the fact that if you’re in London, you become part of an absolutely massive cohort and it’s easy to feel very isolated and like no one in the medical school even knows who you are. Small group teaching becomes medium group teaching, tutorials and seminars become rare and tutors are rarely, if ever, seen. London is a big, anonymous city that’s remarkably unfriendly- not the best place for developing a sense of empathy you’ll need in your career for decades to come. Most London universities aren’t on campuses either so you may find yourself missing that student experience your friends are raving about.

I’d go as far as saying London is only better for you if you’re lazy, because you’re walked into opportunities. Universities outside of the capital will give you the same degree and have just as many choices- you just have to look a little harder for them. Lots of medical schools will allow you to intercalate (choose another degree to complete at the same time as your medical degree). Other universities have just as many clubs and societies, and conferences are held all over the country if you’re that desperate to attend them. You can get involved with the BMA and the Royal Colleges from wherever you are. Clinician knowledge is just as high outside the capital and they all treat patients from whom you can learn just as much.

At the end of the day, whilst you may come out with a degree you believe is slightly more prestigious, if London isn’t the place for you then that will be reflected. If you want to be closer to home or find the big city intimidating then maybe it isn’t for you. If you want smaller class sizes and more contact time, maybe somewhere else would be better. London medical schools attract the best of the best- so competition is high even after you get in and if you want a more nurturing, team-orientated experience then maybe London isn’t the place.

On the other hand, if you want to get stuck into research and meet all the medical bigwigs, London might just do you a favour- but if you’re dedicated enough, you can find that anywhere. 

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