LEADING ARTICLE: Is young Brian too old to be a doctor?

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The Independent Online
Dundee University is deliberating. Is the ingenious Brian MacKinnon, alias Brandon Lee, too deceitful, too eccentric or just too old to be a doctor? First time round, Brian/Brandon, aged 18, enrolled to study medicine at Glasgow University. After five years of chequered exam results, illness and hundreds of petitioning letters, he was kicked out and all prospect of a career in medicine seemed impossible.

What medical school would take on a man ejected from a course elsewhere? And what education authority would fund a five-year course for someone who'd already spent three years in higher education? So Brian became Brandon, supposedly just turned 17, went back to school and tried the whole thing all over again. Most people don't get second chances like this - and Dundee seems set to deny Brian MacKinnon his. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, the tone of the university's reaction, with its implicit ageism, raises broader concerns about the attitudes of those who recruit would-be doctors.

True, Brian/Brandon was guilty of the most elaborate deception. Who would want a habitual fraudster in charge of their prescriptions or medical records? But to be fair, Brian/Brandon didn't lie about his exam results, he lied about his age and his name to get the opportunity to prove himself once more.

The reality is that he may lose his chance not because he lied but because he is judged too old. Although medical schools deny that there is any formal age limit on applicants, Dundee has made it clear that it "does not usually take students over the age of 30". But it's not unusual for 40-year-olds to retrain to be lawyers, so why the big fuss about medicine?

One justification might be that in medicine, unlike other professions, the employer foots the bill: it costs the NHS up to pounds 250,000 to train a doctor. So, say some, it's fair enough that the only those likely to provide a good return on the investment should be trained.

But this is a poor argument. A 35-year-old junior doctor still has 30 practising years ahead. Starting 10 years later than normal should not make a difference, given that such a period is a natural career break in order to raise a family. In any case the additional maturity and experience of the 35-year-old should be an advantage when a young medic is faced for the first time with the daunting responsibility of life-or-death decisions.

Whatever Dundee decides about the particular case of Brandon Lee, patients unsettled by the youthful faces of the doctors deciding their drug doses might be relieved to see a change in policy from the medical schools. Unconventional career paths may not fit neatly into the old hospital hierarchies, but the medical profession should realise that it is possible and desirable to teach older dogs new tricks.

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