Why mentoring is the best medicine

A new scheme helps to widen access to careers in the medical profession, write Katrina Baugh and Jo Skailes
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A year ago Richard Adu-Ntow was drifting through school with no real ambitions. Medicine was his dream career, but he had no idea how to get started and didn't think a medical school would want him. Why would they take someone from an inner-London state school with no medical background and no sign of the A grades usually required for entry?

Things changed when Richard met Apryll Chase, a fourth-year medical student at Guy's, Kings and St Thomas's hospital in London, who has been acting as his mentor since January as part of a programme dealing with access to medicine.

"It has given me the motivation to worker harder than I thought I would, especially at subjects like chemistry and physics," says Richard, 16, who comes from a single-parent family. "I always wanted to do medicine and my mum encouraged me, but now I know I definitely want to be a GP."

In a scheme piloted this year, 35 current medical students volunteered to help aspiring sixth formers from some of London's more disadvantaged schools, including Westminster City School, where Richard studies. The student mentoring scheme is a key part of the hospital's drive to encourage wider participation in all sectors of the health service through work-experience placements, extracurricular lectures and interactive activities.

"There has been concern for a long while over recruiting a narrow band of society into medicine," says Gavin Brown, the programme's project manager. "We have now ring-fenced places for students from disadvantaged schools, who will study for six years rather than the usual five."

Apryll Chase has already encouraged Richard to break into what appears to be the closed world of medicine by applying for work experience at King's Hospital. She is delighted by his progress. "He seems a lot more confident and is trying hard with his work, and is even going to lectures after school, which for a 16-year-old shows a lot of motivation," she says.

The mentor scheme has inspired the whole school. Instead of being teased for working too hard, students such as Richard have become role models for younger pupils. Previously, only one child per class year would have pursued a medical career. Now four students from year 13 and eight from year 12 are hoping to work in the health service.

Layla Meadows, the head of sixth form, says: "The mentoring system has caused a chain reaction throughout the school and has allowed other avenues to open up for students. It has been a morale booster with the students, showing them that medicine is not just for private-school people with money, and that they will not be isolated once they get to university."

Another pupil who has benefited is Itala Santos, 18, who is able to call on her mentor, Vijay Barathan, for advice on revising and how to handle interviews and work experience. "My mother wants me to do medicine and she is very proud that I have got this far," Itala says.

The programme helps young people such as Itala and Richard because they are competing against others from similar backgrounds and don't have to worry about competition from across the country. Susan Stranding, the hospital's admissions tutor, says: "We take pupils with lower A-level grades than other medical schools. We are testing potential and find that the brightest students from lower educational backgrounds often do better than the others on the degree." The usual first year of the medical degree is spread over two years for the access-to-medicine students. That gives them a year to adjust.