Medical Education


The 1974 Birmingham medical student study

This was my first foray into surveying medical students. It was carried out while I was myself a clinical student in Birmingham. Neither I, nor my colleagues Kennedy Cruikshank and Tony Daniels,  had any experience of writing questionnaires, and there were no precedents on which we could build, and that is fairly obvious from the questions asked. At the time we shared a house with several other medical students in Tindal Street, in Birmingham's red-light district of Balsall Heath, and a recurrent topic of discussion was the very varied attitudes, backgrounds and cultural interests of our fellow students, so that many of the questions reflected an attempt to find out something  more about those colleagues. In retrospect it is obvious that many of the themes raised by the answers to those questions have continued to intrigue me for the ensuing decades.Physically the questionnaire was very much a product of its time, being produced by what was then the standard technology of a Gestetner duplicator, the skins being typed on my small portable typewriter, which meant that many of the letters are somewhat indistinct. Data analysis was also very 1970s with the data punched onto Hollerith cards and for the large part sorted using a mechanical tabulating machine that was lurking unloved and unused in the corner of an old office. A new mainframe computer had recently been installed, although undergraduates found it difficult to use it. 

Only a small proportion of the data were ever published, mainly in a brief paper that appeared in the now defunct New Society. An interesting result of publishing the paper was that we were asked by the newly setup ESRC Data Archive (now the UK Data Archive)  if we would provide our raw data, and indeed those data can still be downloaded from the Archive as data set SN 426. Subsequently I was asked by the editor of the Birmingham medical student magazine, Queen's Medical Magazine (QMM), to write an article in reply to an earlier article by then Tutor for Admissions on medical student selection. Through a series of coincidences the article was subsequently reprinted in Murmur, the Cambridge University Medical Society Magazine, where at the end of 1979 it happened to be seen by Peter Richards, the new Dean of St Mary's Hospital Medical School, who recognised its author as the newly appointed Lecturer in Psychology applied to Medicine at St Mary's. Peter invited me to lunch, we talked about the need to do surveys of medical student selection and the problems of doing them, and from that tiny seed grew the 1981, 1986 and 1991 cohort studies, none of which would have been possible without Peter's continual support and collaboration. The 1974 Birmingham study may not therefore have resulted in much output in its own right, but without it none of the other studies would have happened.