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HEi-think: Why continuing support for clinical academics is vital

The work of clinical academics provides an essential bridge between research hubs in universities and clinical practice, but recent surveys by the Medical Schools Council shows their numbers are in decline. Medical Schools Council policy adviser Siobhan Fitzpatrick argues that continuing support is needed to address the issue.

 

Clinical academics provide the backbone to our NHS. They are the practising clinicians who lead on patient care, undertake research to advance our understanding of medicine, and educate the next generation of doctors.

The Medical Schools Council represents all 33 publicly funded medical schools and produces a yearly survey of clinical academic numbers. This year’s survey reveals that there are now 3,100 clinical academics in the UK. This represents a gentle but steady decline in their numbers over recent years.

Why does this matter? Clinical academics are employed by university medical schools while holding honorary contracts with the NHS or a healthcare provider. They therefore act as the bridge between research hubs and real clinical practice. Without this link, neither the UK’s biomedical sector nor the care delivered every day in its hospitals could maintain its world-class position.

Due to the cross-sector nature this role, clinical academia is an exciting, varied and challenging career. What’s more, in an institution as vast and complex as the health service, those who have that rare experience of having worked across different areas are uniquely placed to play leading roles in future. This experience should be encouraged and nurtured.

While the survey reveals a drop in the clinical academic numbers, it is important to remember that these recent years of decline follow a period of increase. This increase was due to the Department of Health’s formation of the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) in 2006. The NIHR now funds nearly half of all clinical academic posts. It is also connected to the most promising piece of news revealed by the survey.

Medicine, particularly clinical academia, has historically been a male-dominated profession. Over the last 50 years, as medicine has become increasingly gender balanced (45per cent of practising doctors are women, along with 56per cent of graduating doctors), clinical academia had seen only a slow change in the number of women in senior positions.

In 2011, under the staunch leadership of Professor Dame Sally Davies (herself a clinical academic), the NIHR formally linked the eligibility for research funding to having a ‘Silver award’ in the Athena SWAN initiative. Athena SWAN measures the amount an institution is doing to build gender equality into its working environment and promotion structures.

This added extra impetus to the work which universities were already undertaking in gender equality. The survey now shows that, although women remain under-represented in academic medicine overall, there has been large and sustained progress over the past decade. In 2006 there were just 129 female professors and more than 1,000 male professors. Now there are 260 female and 1,180 male – a proportionally significant change.

Athena SWAN has shone a spotlight on culture, family friendly practices, and support which enables the best person for the job to further their career. More than half of medical school departments and faculties hold the demanding Silver award, which recognises substantial progress in addressing local issues and challenges.

It is vital that clinical academia continues to be supported by the NHS, major research councils, and charities. Doctors in the early stages of their careers must be enthused to go into medical research careers. Through its yearly surveys, the Medical Schools Council is committed to monitoring their numbers and composition, providing a basis for the policy work which lies beneath our incredible healthcare workforce.

 

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