Health - Generation of listening doctors

This summer saw the first students graduate from Durham University's new medical degree.

This summer saw the first students graduate from Durham University's new medical degree. The programme at the university's Queen's Campus in Stockton trains 120 students every year. Joanna Desira visited the Queen's Campus to find out more.

Durham University is producing new doctors for the North-East. The five-year course sees students spend two years in phase one of the course at the university's Queen's Campus in Stockton.

They study phase two for the final three years at Newcastle University.

The programme stands out from other medical degrees because there is an emphasis on working in the community. Most of this year's first crop of newly qualified doctors have found jobs in the North-East.

The degree was launched in 2001 by Prof John Hamilton and Dr Ray Manning as the university's first medical degree in 40 years. Both men retired last year.

Prof John MacLachlan, editor of leading journal Medical Education, has been academic director of phase one medicine at Durham for the past year. Previously he was at Peninsular Medical School at the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter.

He said: "We started with 70 in the first year intake, but the numbers have increased steadily since then and currently we have 102 students every year; 95 are home students and seven are from overseas. Medical schools in the UK have applications from all over the UK, but we have a higher proportion of local students than would be normal.

"The course has a strong focus on the community, for instance our students go into placements in which they work with a range of organisations including voluntary organisations. They spend an afternoon a week working there and it gives them a feel for the local community.

"They are very well supported by health services locally, including the hospitals and the primary care trusts and lots of teaching is done by clinicians and health professionals in the area.

"The students meet real patients from very early on and it is to help them understand the social impact of what illness may mean for the individual and their family.

A group of 102 is relatively small for a medical school these days, so there's an intimate feel and the staff tend to know the students very well, which contributes to the family feel."

During phase two in Newcastle the students are based at different hospitals. "A number of our students tend to be based with James Cook University Hospital [Middlesbrough] so they are not moving that far away.

"There is evidence that students who go to medical school in a particular region tend to stay in that region. This helps healthcare provision in the North-East, and the Tees Valley particularly."

The course also stands out for its focus on using the latest technology to teach students.

The university has bought a portable ultrasound scanner called a SonoSite Micro Maxx, at a cost of £40,000. It was initially developed for use by the armed forces on the battlefield and is not yet in wide use by the NHS. Prof MacLachlan said there was no other medical school in the UK with equipment of that standard.

"Clinicians say our students have very effective communication skills and personal qualities," he said. "In most cases where something goes wrong it's because communication has broken down, not because there has been a technical fault.

"Communication is something that is very important for us and for all doctors. We are very happy to be part of the local community and we look forward to expanding connections between the medical school and the community."

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