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Observations Medicine and the Media

BMJ in “smug docs” storm

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 12 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1340
  1. Rebecca Coombes, freelance journalist, London
  1. rcoombes{at}

Can a media row over a BMJ editorial be blamed on newspaper journalists’ misunderstanding of statistics? Rebecca Coombes investigates

What was it about a recent BMJ editorial that caused a leading UK tabloid newspaper to condemn it as “outrageous” and displaying a “backwards, warped view”?

The article, inoffensively titled “Increasing diversity among clinicians,” (BMJ 2008;336:1082-3; doi: 10.1136/bmj.39569.609641.80) was written by Chris McManus, professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, and Hugh Ip, editor of Student BMJ. It argued against medical degree courses which deliberately lower entrance requirements in order to attract candidates from poorer backgrounds.

The 1000 word editorial went on to question the value of the £190 000 a year scheme at King’s College London, in which 50 of the 400 places are available for pupils from state schools in poor areas of the capital, even if they get three Cs at A level. “Is it worth our while to widen participation, particularly if this risks reducing standards?” asked Ip and McManus.

What rankled the Daily Mirror, one of the brigade of “red top” tabloid newspapers, was Ip and McManus’s opening sentence. “UK medical students tend to come from higher socioeconomic classes, perhaps not surprisingly, as social class correlates with intellectual ability.”

“Shame of the smug docs” ran the headline to the Mirror’s leader article, which blasted “cosy, smug doctors who claimed that comprehensive school pupils aren’t bright enough to be …

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