Helen Whately is MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent.
The NHS is nothing without the people who work in it. The care we value so much depends utterly on the doctors, nurses, therapists and everyone else who works in our health service.
We are living longer, but with more health problems. And as our need for healthcare increases, so does the need for doctors and nurses. Many areas of life can be automated, but healthcare largely bucks this trend; the NHS depends on people.
At the moment there are around 150,000 doctors working in the NHS, but up to ten per cent of jobs for doctors are vacant. Some posts are filled by locums, others just go unfilled – adding to the pressure on the doctors who are there.
For many years, we’ve relied on doctors from overseas boosting the numbers in the NHS – currently around 25 per cent. This won’t change overnight, and there’s a lot to be said for doctors working internationally, but the time has come to boost our own home-grown supply.
That’s exactly what the Government is doing.
Every year 6,000 students start medical school in England. This year, there will be 630 extra new starters. And by 2020, there will be an extra 1,500 medical school places – an increase of 25 per cent.
So in a few years’ time, the NHS will have more doctors to staff our hard-pressed A&Es and GP surgeries.
But this news is better than that. While many of these new doctors will follow in the footsteps of their forebears and train in established medical schools, 410 of the places will be in new medical schools – in Sunderland, Lancashire, Lincoln, Chelmsford, and, most significantly to me as a Kent MP, in Canterbury. I’ve been working with the two universities in Canterbury for this almost since the day the Government announced this expansion in medical students. Why? Because it could transform healthcare in Kent.
Kent struggles to attract doctors, especially to the east of the county. It’s largely rural with deprived coastal communities. Our A&Es rely on locums. We have some of the worst waiting times in the country. And we need 530 more GPs to reach the national average per head.
Canterbury Hospital was once a magnet for clinicians looking to work outside London, but it’s hard to compete with renowned London hospitals, where doctors can take up opportunities to research and teach as well as practice medicine. And when doctors consider where to apply for jobs post-qualification, many are drawn to places and people they have got to know as students.
By locating new medical schools around the country, in areas which struggle to recruit, the Government is not only boosting the absolute numbers but also sharing the supply to address some of the imbalances.
Better still, universities successful in their bids for these new medical students have also committed to recruiting more candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds. Having a medical school within reach of your home, especially one that reaches out and encourages you to apply, could suddenly make the idea of becoming a doctor a dream worth dreaming for a teenager in an area where life doesn’t seem to offer much.
It’s not been easy for the new medical schools to succeed in their bids. I’ve seen the huge effort they have made close at hand in Kent. Congratulations to the University of Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University and all the other universities who have won a share of the new places.
All winter we’ve seen negative headlines about the NHS. Here is a positive one that deserves coverage. 1,500 more student doctors, in the areas of the country where they are most needed – along with 5,000 more nurse training places, also a 25 per cent uplift.
Whenever I visit hospitals, staff tell me how they struggle to find time to give patients the care they want to. They tell me the gaps in staff rotas and the reliance on locums and agency staff make a difficult job so much harder. This won’t be solved overnight – it takes two to four years to train a nurse and seven years to train a doctor – but a change is coming.
So long as the hospitals and surgeries these new nurses and doctors start work in give them the support they will need, the NHS will truly turn a corner. They are the future of our NHS.