Helen Martin: Lack of doctors at fever pitch

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EVERY time I read about the shortage of doctors in the UK I think of my sister. She began studying medicine in 1959. Not only was tuition free, there were grants to attend university and girls studying medicine were in the minority.

She graduated, worked full time for about five years and then, in the custom of the time, gave up to raise her children, never returning apart from a clinic here, a clinic there and the occasional locum job. Her retiral from any part in active medicine was slightly hastened by the IT revolution. She had never mastered a keyboard let alone a PC. Even then it seemed like a hell of a waste of education. But then she did produce two doctor children to make up for it and in her time, Scotland seemed to have plenty of doctors.

Now we don’t. Medicine is an extremely expensive degree education and one we generally expect graduates to apply to their career. Unlike politics, economics, English literature or psychology, it’s not a general interest degree or something students would expect to use to get into the graduate recruitment programme of John Lewis. The number of entrants into university must bear some relation to the number of doctors we expect to turn out at the other end in order to look after the nation’s health, otherwise how can we plan for the future?

We have to account for those from overseas who return to their own country, or those who go elsewhere for greater reward. But we should be entitled to expect at least a decade or two of – well paid – service from most of them. It’s not merely a question of women giving up or taking extended years of leave to rear their children. There are several high profile male doctors who have turned TV presenter, comedian or sports personality, not to mention those who reject the NHS in favour of lucrative and private cosmetic surgery.

Other countries may not impose such expectations on those studying medicine, but then other countries don’t have such generous university costs and loans systems and nor do they have an NHS depending on them.

My neighbour, a doctor and consultant who has devoted his working life to the NHS, is about to retire. He was meant to have a “phased” retiral, gradually doing fewer hours until he reduced to a part-time contract. Instead he’s scheduled with almost as much work as ever because there simply aren’t enough members of his speciality to take over. And that’s despite the new breed of consultants being “fast-tracked”, having put in fewer hours and seen fewer cases so that they can fill roles sooner than they once would have done. In A&E and GP practice we also fall short.

Education for education’s sake is a fine notion. As professions go we can survive if some lawyers, accountants or architects throw it all in to become beach-combers, and though we could do with more engineers and physicists in the big picture, we don’t need them in our day to day lives the way we need doctors.

If we could offer more student assistance for necessary courses such as medicine, in return for a binding minimum years service contract we could at least have a solid basis for planning the NHS.