Medical marvel

January 2, 2019

The University of Sunderland’s School of Medicine will open this September as part of a Government drive to rebalance medical education in the UK. Professor Scott Wilkes, who is overseeing the process, talks to Alison Cowie about what it takes to create a socially-responsible medical school and the potential impacts for students and local NHS provision

The University of Sunderland will begin training the next generation of medical professionals this autumn. Its School of Medicine – which will welcome its first cohort of 50 students in September – is part of the Government’s Department of Health strategy to establish five new medical schools across the UK that address regional imbalances in medical education.

When announcing the project in 2016, the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: “Setting up five new medical schools is part of the biggest ever expansion of our medical and nursing workforce, which will help us deal with the challenges of having around one million more over 75s in ten years’ time.

“These schools are being set up in parts of the country where it can be hard to recruit and attract new doctors – but will benefit doctors everywhere as we start to eliminate the rota gaps that add so much pressure to their work.”

The bid by the University of Sunderland to be home to one of the five new medical schools was led by Scott Wilkes, a professor of general practice and primary care.

Professor Wilkes reveals that – despite being able to draw on the university’s existing strengths in nursing, pharmacy, paramedic and biomedical science training – establishing a school of medicine is a significant undertaking.

“The bid was an enormous task and we had a large team working on it,” he says. “I led the process but we had the full backing of the university’s vice-chancellor and chief executive, Shirley Atkinson, and a tidal wave of support from the NHS, with many local chief executives offering letters of support.”

Professor Wilkes continues: “It takes three years to open a medical school and there is a series of stages that must be completed.

“The university has also entered into a crucial partnership with Keele University School of Medicine – which tops the rankings in many medical student metrics – to help us in the process.”

Professor Wilkes, who will oversee the School of Medicine’s teaching, research and engagement with NHS partners, is keen to stress its “socially- responsible” approach in addressing three critical challenges faced by the sector.

The first is around encouraging a widening participation in medical education, particularly by students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Over the past ten years, we’ve slowly eroded students’ belief that they can study medicine,” says Professor Wilkes. “And at the same time, we’ve built up filtering barriers that favour socially- privileged work experience and economically- privileged entrance exams.

“Those things together have led to the situation that we’re in now where we’ve got half the number of widening participation students accessing medicine compared to other STEM subjects.”

Professor Wilkes says that the application process for Sunderland’s School of Medicine will not disadvantage students from poorer backgrounds.

An example he gives is around the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

“The Duke of Edinburgh Award is a fantastic programme that demonstrates great leadership qualities but it’s an opportunity that’s not afforded to everyone,” Professor Wilkes explains. “We will, therefore, award just as many points in the application process to students who have shown leadership in other more accessible ways – such as volunteering with a Scout Group, which doesn’t cost anything.”

Once the medical students arrive in Sunderland, they will have access to the university’s wide- ranging support services.

“Sunderland has the highest number of widening participation students of any university in the UK and, as a result, it has an extensive and mature support infrastructure. I will, unashamedly, be using this expertise for the benefit of the School of Medicine students,” Professor Wilkes says.

The growing team at Sunderland School of Medicine is also keen to rectify the worrying statistic that of all the students studying medicine in the UK in 2017, only four per cent were from the North East.

The school will be working with existing University of Sunderland initiatives, such as Bright Sparks and Leading Lights, to engage school children from age seven years onwards. And, in line with other degree courses at the university, the School of Medicine has established an annual summer school for prospective Year 12 students based in the local area who fulfil the Office for Students’ widening participation metrics.

“We give them a taster as to what it’s like to study medicine,” Professor Wilkes explains. “We teach them about the NHS Constitution for England, General Medical Councils Good Medical Practice, the Duty of Candour and the importance of professionalism, empathy and trust.

“The aim is to demystify the process for students who may not have been exposed to this information before so that they can compete on a level playing feel with students from the rest of the UK,” explains Professor Wilkes. He adds: “But what we don’t want to do is conflate academic ability with socioeconomic disadvantage; we want students at Sunderland who can cope with the demands of a very demanding degree – and career.”

The second challenge Sunderland School of Medicine will look to address is the specialty shortages that exist on Wearside – namely in general practice and psychiatry.

Professor Wilkes – who spends one day each week working as a local GP – reveals that one in five GP positions in the North East is currently unfilled.

“Because we don’t have the resource in the primary care system in the NHS, secondary care is suffering,” he says, adding: “We know that about a third of medical students tend to work in the area where they train, while another third return to the area they’re from. Therefore, by training the next

generation of doctors in Sunderland, we should be able to address the imbalances that exist here.”

Students who attend Sunderland School of Medicine will have access to the university’s existing health sciences teaching and learning space, which includes outstanding real-life settings and cutting-edge simulation equipment, while two new anatomy labs will be built by 2021 – one at the university and one at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

As Professor Wilkes explains, the medical students will also be taught by some of the country’s leading medical educators.

“In years three, four and five of a medical degree, students are essentially taught by GPs and doctors and the way these educators are split up in the UK is into 15 different ‘deaneries’.

“The University of Sunderland is fortunate because it falls into the North East and North Cumbria deanery [Health Education England North East], which is ranked number one in 16 of 18 indicators in the General Medical Council’s annual training survey.

“The argument could, therefore, be made that, if you were to study medicine anywhere in the UK, you should choose the North East or North Cumbria because the metrics show that this region’s medical education is the best.”

The final challenge that Sunderland School of Medicine will address will be instilling inter- professional learning into its students.

“The NHS runs in teams, and to teach medical students in isolation is short-sighted,” Professor Wilkes explains. “Currently, the university’s trainee nurses, paramedics and pharmacists all have a very good understanding about what each others’ roles and responsibilities are and the same has been embedded into the School of Medicine curriculum.”

The head of Sunderland School of Medicine has high hopes for the cohorts of students – which will rise to 100 after the first-year intake – who choose to study on Wearside.

“My aspiration is for them to turn into doctors who are capable of choosing and following any career they wish and be the best in their field,” he says.

“It’s bloody exciting, isn’t it?”, the professor adds with a knowing grin that the school he’s helping to create is on course to change the lives of future medical professionals and their patients.

University of Sunderland School of Medicine