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Doctors from underprivileged backgrounds are poorly represented in medicine

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f6348 (Published 18 October 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f6348
  1. Caroline White, freelance journalist, London

Doctors from underprivileged backgrounds are poorly represented in medicine, the General Medical Council has concluded after asking doctors in training about their social backgrounds.

A third of doctors in training have been privately educated, and only one in 20 doctors in training grew up in the UK’s most deprived areas, show data from the GMC’s national training survey.1

The findings add to the growing evidence that social inequalities persist in the profile of those gaining access to a career in medicine. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority indicate that the social profile of medical students has scarcely changed in five years.2

The survey provides a snapshot of the perceptions and experiences of the UK’s 54 000 doctors in training. Almost 39 000 trainee doctors who went to secondary school and medical school in the UK were asked five questions about their socioeconomic status and background while growing up.

This is the first time the GMC has included these questions in its national training survey. The move was prompted by a report published last year by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which highlighted the need for better data collection on doctors’ social background.3

Although 39% of trainees went to a non-selective state school and 24% went to a selective state school, 34% were privately educated, even though private schools educate just 7% of pupils across the UK. The remainder preferred not to say where they had been educated.

Around a 10th (11.5%) of the respondents said that they grew up in households that received income support to bolster pay, and 8% received free school meals. Almost two thirds (64%) of the trainees grew up in the UK’s most affluent areas and just 6% in the most deprived.

“Medicine should attract the brightest and the best from all parts of society,” commented the GMC’s chairman, Peter Rubin. “By adding these socioeconomic questions to the GMC’s national training survey, we are better able to see not only which parts of society tomorrow’s doctors are coming from, but where medical schools and others may need to work differently to promote fairness and encourage aspiration.”

A career in medicine should be “accessible to individuals with the ability and aptitude to be a good doctor whichever part of society they come from,” Rubin added.

The regulator has shared its findings with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission and with the Selecting for Excellence Executive Group, of which it is a member. This group was set up by the Medical Schools Council earlier this year in a bid to look at how best to widen participation in medicine.

The GMC intends to repeat the questions on social background in next year’s training survey, directing them to doctors in the first year of foundation training, and it plans to explore whether the data can be linked to job prospects and the annual review of competence progression (ARCP).

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