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Significant rise in students starting medical school seen for first time in years

The number of students taking up a place at UK medical schools has increased by 9% this year, bucking a decade-long trend of numbers either falling or seeing very small growth.

The latest official figures from UCAS, published yesterday, show rises across England, Wales and Scotland, but a decline in Northern Ireland of students beginning undergraduate medical training.

It comes after governments around the UK announced an expansion to medical school places to address doctor shortages, with funding prioritised to schools with a general practice focus.

In England, 500 extra places were due to be made available for this autumn, with a further 1,000 places expected by 2020.

The latest figures show that from this autumn, 9,950 students are due to start a medicine or dentistry course in the UK, compared with 9,100 in 2017 – though the figures could still increase as more students confirm their place at medical school through clearing over the coming weeks.

It is by far the highest number of medical students seen in a decade.

Wales has seen the largest annual increase this year, compared with other UK countries. The number of students from the country accepting a place at medical school shot up by 24% – from 330 in 2017, to 410 this year. This represents the first rise since 2012.

In England there has been a 10% jump in the number of applicants placed on a medicine course – from 6,520 in 2017 to 7,170 this year – which comes after nine years of declining numbers or no change.

Scotland has seen a 1% rise, from 750 in 2017 to 760 new medical students signing up this year.

But in Northern Ireland – a region where problems with GP recruitment and retention have been particularly acute – numbers have dropped by 9%, from 460 to 420, according to the latest UCAS figures which are 28 days after clearing started.

RCGP Wales welcomed the country’s sharp increase in undergraduate medical students, but called for more focus to encourage them to work in primary and community settings.

‘It’s important that students are encouraged into primary and community-based settings in order to meet future patient demand,’ said Dr Peter Saul, RCGP Wales joint chair.

In the past year there have been growing efforts to introduce additional medical school places in a bid to address the shortfall of GPs, including five new medical schools being launched in England.

In Scotland, the Government has announced 85 extra medical school places, with courses to be ‘focused on general practice’, starting from next year.

Earlier this summer, it was also revealed that universities in North Wales would bring in 40 extra medical school places from 2019.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey reiterated his support for the expansion of medical school places, but warned it would not be an immediate fix to the workforce shortfall.

‘It will clearly take time to train these new students, but we do need to be training more students to create the workforce we need not just in the future but now,’ he said.

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