Leader comment: Health service without doctors is not worthy of the name

Scotland needs more doctors
Scotland needs more doctors
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An array of different pressures have combined to create a crisis for the NHS in Scotland.

An array of different pressures have combined to create a crisis for the NHS in Scotland.

And one of the most significant is a growing shortage of doctors. According to the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland, there will be 856 unfilled vacancies for GPs by 2021. And that means potentially life-threatening delays for patients trying to get an appointment and increased pressure on the GPs currently in the job.

Scotland is not alone with many countries around the world struggling to attract doctors, but that is no excuse. If anything, it demonstrates the need to find a lasting solution to the recruitment problem because competition for doctors will only get more intense.

It is blindingly obvious that the best way to increase the number of doctors is to train more Scots to become doctors.

However, new figures released by the Scottish Government show that the number of Scottish-domiciled students taking clinical medicine degrees at our universities fell to a ten-year low of 2,160 last year, compared to 2,350 in 2013/14.

One reason for that is Scottish students face competition for places at medical schools from people from all over the world. Because medicine is a much more expensive course than other subjects to teach, the number of Scots allowed to enrol is controlled by the Scottish Government and international students are a lucrative source of external funds, effectively helping to subsidise the education of Scots.

But this could prove to be a false economy. If the number of newly trained doctors fails to keep up with demand, then the recruitment crisis will only get worse. So the Scottish Government needs to take steps to persuade more school pupils that a career in medicine is for them – and they could start by addressing the causes of “GP burnout”, a problem described vividly by one doctor in The Scotsman recently.

But they also need to consider ways to persuade medical students from England, Wales and further afield that they should stay in Scotland after they graduate. During their student years, some may decide they like living in Scotland, but there are surely things that could be done to encourage the idea. Whatever strategy is adopted, Scotland needs to act quickly. It hardly needs saying but a health service without doctors is not worthy of the name.