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MSC warns of sharply declining clinical academic numbers

The number of people in the clinical academic workforce has seen a considerable drop over the last five years, a new survey has revealed.

Concern was raised by the Medical Schools Council (MSC), who conducted a survey of clinical academics in the NHS and found that the total number of staff had seen a 2.1% decline since 2015 and a 4.2% decline since 2010.

It was also found that the reduction in staff had occurred disproportionately at senior lecturer level, where there had been a 32.9% fall in staff numbers since 2000, part of a 14.3% decline in numbers overall in the same timeframe.

With regards to GPs, while there had been a steady increase of clinical academics, the MSC said that these numbers would have to expand more rapidly if primary care was to keep up with sharply rising demand.

“Medical clinical academics are key to a health service which properly serves the nation,” said Professor Jenny Higham, chair of the MSC. “Where medical schools have reported difficulties in recruiting to senior lecturer grade we must together investigate and remove any barriers for potential candidates. 

“This will involve not just medical schools but the whole community of funders, employers and other bodies,” she added.

Prof Higham commended the Medical Research Council for leading in the development of a survey to better understand staffing at senior lecturer level, and the wider group of research funders for their collaboration on creating new guidance for institutions and trainees who receive funding for clinical academic training. 

“Initiatives like these, together with the survey released today, are invaluable in ensuring the future pipeline of medical clinical academics,” she concluded. “This is paramount to the UK’s ability to care for the patients of today and the future.”

‘A decline in academics means a decline in NHS’s ability to compete internationally’

Professor David Katz from the BMA’s Medical Academic Staff Committee added that the report was “worrying” for the NHS, and that Prof Higham was right to say that it was an issue that involved not just medical schools but the wider community of funders, employers and other bodies.  

“Our own survey has shown that the vast majority of academic trainees want to have a research or education component to their future careers, but this requires an ongoing shared commitment from the NHS and the academic sector to make available time and money,” Prof Katz said.

“Clinical academics are leaders in research and education in our universities and are vital to the healthcare innovation and wealth creation they generate. 

“A decline in the number of clinical academics will be mirrored by a decline in our ability to compete internationally and to improve quality in the NHS.”

The BMA lead also emphasised how this was not an issue which only affected hospitals, as he pointed out that there were insufficient opportunities for GPs to have an academic career or to have an identified academic component to their job. 

“There is a risk that the new junior doctor contract will worsen this situation, not improve it,” he argued. “GPs complete academic training after finishing clinical training so they will not be eligible for the academic pay premium.

“This adds yet another disincentive to entering academic medicine and to creating the right environment for every patient.”

And Prof Katz stated that the government’s plans to increase medical student numbers significantly will mean that there is a need for more – not fewer - medical academics, in order to maintain the quantity, quality and reputation of teaching in NHS medical schools.

“Furthermore, the loss of talented medical academic staff from the rest of the European Union will make this situation even worse. The UK needs to invest urgently in clinical academic staff,” he concluded.

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