Liverpool study highlights national crisis in pathology

A study of the UK's pathologists, carried out by a scientist at the University of Liverpool on behalf of the Department of Health and the Royal College of Pathologists, has sparked concern over the numbers leaving the profession particularly in academia.

Pathologists are skilled scientists whose role is to identify the nature, origin and process of a disease. Professor Christopher Foster from the University's School of Cancer Studies carried out the audit of academic pathologists working in the UK and found that the number of academic pathologists has decreased by 40% in the past year alone. His research also indicated a decline in the number of UK students both in science and medicine - choosing to enter the profession.

The Department of Health has responded to the study by establishing new clinical roles and lecturing posts to fill the void left by the drop in practicing pathologists in the UK. In addition, cancer research charities are helping to set up new centres of cancer pathology training to recruit pathologists focused on cancer research.

Professor Foster, who is also Director of Workforce Planning at the Royal College of Pathologists, said: "The loss of working clinical academics is directly linked to the conflicting academic and service pressures they face, as well as staggering workloads. Additional pressure is felt in light of the upcoming Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in which the quality of their research is assessed and reported to the four major higher education funding bodies on behalf of their individual university.

"Many academic pathologists consistently work in excess of 60 hours per week to meet their academic requirements while simultaneously dealing with NHS work lists at the same time. Although academic with clinical commitments find it difficult to compete against full-time medical researchers, their knowledge and understanding is of fundamental importance to a wide spectrum of clinical and basic scientific research."

The effect on research has led to many higher education institutions moving pathologists from their university posts into positions in the NHS. This shift in work focus has led to senior researchers choosing to retire to avoid the change in job role, a trend which is reflected in the 40% loss of senior academic pathologists in the past year.

Professor Foster added: "It is good news that the Department of Health has recognised the need to improve retention of pathologists and boost recruitment to the profession. The Government recognises it is vital they can continue academic research as well as clinical duties to ensure the UK maintains its reputation for delivering excellent health care.

"We are encouraged by the Government's initiative in providing funding for Clinical Fellowships, Lectureships, and Senior Lectureships. However, it is too soon to predict the impact of these proposals although there may be opportunities for stimulating academic pathology research within this newly proposed framework."

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Notes to editors

1. The University of Liverpool is one of the UK's leading research institutions. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than 90 million annually.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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