Apprentice-doctor roles could help tackle staff shortages and broaden access to NHS jobs at the same time, says Nichola Hay MBE
To help solve NHS staffing issues in England, the Government could soon roll out a medical apprenticeship scheme that would give school-leavers the opportunity to take a vocational route into medicine.
The scheme is part of a package of measures that could be introduced under the much-anticipated NHS workforce plan. And if approved, it could be launched as early as September.
With the BMA reporting more than 8,500 unfilled medical vacancies across England towards the end of last year, it was imperative the workforce plan sought to address that through introducing new entry routes and widening the opportunities for people to choose a career in medicine. Ensuring it is an attractive and, for many, achievable profession is key for the future of the NHS.
In fact, with over 124,000 vacancies across the NHS in England last year – double the amount that existed in March 2021 – it is clear that bold new ideas are needed to widen access into the NHS.
It was therefore concerning to read and hear so many responses from those within the medical profession and the media earlier this week, seemingly concerned about the calibre of doctors that an apprenticeship scheme could deliver.
Apprenticeships have been successfully adopted by a huge number of professional occupations in the past decade. Indeed, it remains a key pillar of the Government’s wider skills strategy.
Apprenticeships bring with them major benefits for both the employer and the trainee: the trainee receives a wage while learning and gains on-the-job experience that a classroom cannot provide; meanwhile, the employer has an extra member of staff with the Apprenticeship Levy funding the apprenticeship training.
The idea, however, that an apprenticeship scheme cannot work within the medical profession is both ill-judged and damaging. Especially considering similar schemes have played a vital pathway to train many of the NHS’s nurses and support the critical workforce shortages in nursing.
What apprenticeships can bring to medicine
Firstly, it’s important to highlight that any doctor trained via a degree apprenticeship will be required to meet the same entry requirements and pass the same GMC-regulated exams as a university student doctor. These standards will in no way drop following the launch of an apprenticeship scheme in medicine.
What apprenticeships can do, however, is widen the opportunity for people to study to become a medical professional. With no university debt and the ability to earn a wage while studying, a significantly higher proportion of people will be able to choose this career path.
We have already seen this across other professions. The legal sector, for instance, once known for being a gated community for people from a particular background, introduced solicitor apprenticeships in 2016. Seven years on and the diversity across the legal sector continues to improve year-on-year as more people from non-traditional backgrounds opt for a career in law.
Secondly, the NHS has been benefitting from apprenticeships for years, following the launch of the nursing apprenticeship scheme in 2017. A recent study BPP conducted with Health Education England found that 80% of trusts now have more than 100 apprenticeships in their organisation. Meanwhile, 85% of trusts across England find apprenticeships to be a solution to the skills gap.
If similar figures were reported in four years’ time for medical doctor degree apprenticeships, this proposed scheme would no doubt be looked back on as an enormous success.
Breaking the apprenticeships stigma
One of the biggest challenges for newly launched apprenticeship schemes in highly skilled sectors, such as medicine, is the initial level of appetite from people wanting to choose an apprenticeship route over university. The stigma that a degree apprenticeship cannot provide the same level of education or produce the same quality worker continues to hold back the rollout of apprenticeship schemes. Indeed, we witnessed similar mindsets following the launch of legal apprenticeships. But these arguments are entirely unfounded.
However, some of the responses to the workforce plan this week from those within the medical profession and the media, questioning whether apprenticeships will meet the standards of a university degree, only fuel that stigma. And, at worst, it will hinder those from non-traditional backgrounds from considering a career in medicine.
The future of the NHS is being called into question on a daily basis, driven – in most part – by an acute lack of staff. A new and more accessible route to enter medicine can only be a good thing and we should all rally behind it to make it a success.
Nichola Hay MBE is director of apprenticeship strategy and policy at BPP