Training cuts put patients in danger

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University funding cuts have plunged medical schools into crisis and are jeopardising patient care, research and the training of young doctors, vice-chancellors warned yesterday.

While Britain's 22 medical schools should be recruiting an extra 250 staff to meet an increase in student numbers they will probably have to shed up to 100 positions this year, the chair of the vice-chancellors' medical committee said.

The quality of patient care is bound to be hit by the loss of academics who spend much of their time treating patients, by huge cuts to major research projects and by a larger classes in medical schools which could hit training, a meeting in London was told.

Ministers cut 5 per cent from universities' total budgets this year and plan to cut spending on buildings and maintenance by 50 per cent in the next three years.

Among the major building projects which may be delayed or cancelled are a cardiovascular research unit in Cambridge, a institute of health sciences in Oxford, and a human anatomy resource centre in Liverpool.

The meeting was told that research into BSE at Imperial College, London, and the care of diabetics at Manchester Royal Infirmary could both be affected by the cuts.

Comments by ministers that there was no direct link between the funding of medical undergraduates and patient care were dismissed as "a downright lie" by Dr Sandy Macara, chairman of the British Medical Association.

"It is a lie which we are nailing here and now. Teaching, research and patient care are an inextricable triad and if you weaken one you weaken the others," he said.

The meeting was told that medical schools had agreed to increase the number of students from 22,500 to 24,000 by the end of the century and also to introduce a new curriculum which would need smaller classes. At the same time funds for teaching were being cut by pounds 10m to pounds 190m and staff jobs were bound to be lost.

Britain is in desperate need of more doctors, the vice-chancellors said. The number of doctors per thousand people in Britain puts us 23rd out of 24 in a league of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), better only than Turkey.

There were also warnings that Britain could soon find itself in a downward spiral from which its medical research could not recover. Dr Andrew Williams, head of clinical pharmacology for Zeneca Pharmaceuticals, said multi-national companies could well direct funding to countries which were maintaining or even expanding their research base, he said.

Professor Sir Michael Thompson, chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors' medical committee and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, said the effects of the cuts could be felt for a long time if they were not reversed immediately. "Without a change of policy there will be death and suffering in the next century which could have been avoided," he warned.

The Department of Education and Employment said in a statement that in spite of a tough budget research funding had been maintained. The cut in capital expenditure reflected the Government's desire for projects to be funded through private sources, it added.