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30 August 2022

Amid NHS staff shortages, the UK reintroduces cap on medical students

The number of medicine and dentistry students will go down to pre-pandemic levels this year.

By Katharine Swindells

Earlier this month, across the country, thousands of 18-year-olds anxiously awaited their A-Level results and that all-important email from UCAS. Over the past two years, one of the courses to have seen a big increase in popularity among school-leavers is medicine. Almost 30,000 people applied for entry in September 2022. Despite its expense – five years of tuition fees before you can even earn a junior doctor salary – medicine has seen a surge in applicants, from a low of 19,000 in 2017 up to 29,710 this year.

This should be good news: the dire state of NHS staffing has long been in the headlines. The effects of shortages can be seen across the healthcare sector – this year’s GP Patient Survey, for example, shows a serious dip in satisfaction.

Despite the NHS’s clear need for more medics, the number of medical and dentistry students each year is capped by the government to control costs, as it subsidises the courses.

The Secretary of State for Education, James Cleverly, commented recently that it's not possible to "flick a switch" to increase the numbers of doctors undergoing training, due to having to ensure there is enough funding and capacity for teaching and placements.

However, the cap was increased for the past two years, ​partly due to A-Level grades being higher because they were determined by teachers and also because of deferrals and general Covid disruption. Universities in England, for example, offered 8,400 medicine and dentistry places for the entry year 2020, and 9,300 in 2021, although this year that has been reduced to 7,500. In the UK, more than 10,000 students were accepted to pre-clinical medicine for each of the past two years, but will fall back this year.

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Recent research from the British Medical Association (BMA) puts England next to last in Europe for the number of doctors per capita, requiring 46,300 additional full-time doctors to bring the country in line with the OECD EU average. In May, the BMA told the House of Commons health and social care committee that to have the medical workforce it needs by the year 2030, the UK needs to create an additional 11,000 medical school places per year.

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But, says Roger Kirby, president of the Royal Society of Medicine, the NHS needs to aim not just to increase the numbers of medicine trainees, but also to hold on to young doctors, who he says are often leaving for jobs in other countries or for non-clinical roles in finance or consulting. Investment in well-being, retention and international recruitment, could also be an effective way of easing staff shortages.

[See also: When will Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak get real about the NHS?]

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