After my second year of medical school, I came across a careers article that really shook me up. Published by the British Medical Association (BMA), ‘The Right Mix’ stated that half of all UK schools don’t produce a single medical applicant – and less than 5% of all UK medical-school cohorts come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

I was shocked by those figures – particularly because I come from an underrepresented background myself. My first reaction was that talent is distributed in every area of British society – and if whole demographics aren’t being given appropriate opportunities, then the medical profession could be missing out on a potential reservoir of talent. Who knows… the world’s best oncologist may be out there, somewhere, in an underrepresented group.

Early intervention

Given my background, I felt that I had some useful insights into the sorts of barriers young people were facing, in terms of what they perceived to be possible. So, I set up a medical outreach programme, run through my old secondary school, which I hoped would engage Sixth Form students.

However, I soon hit a snag: by that stage of their lives, a lot of students haven’t got the necessary grades, or work experience, to serve as a foundation for medical careers, and are therefore very underprepared. On that basis, I felt it would be more effective to undertake a younger intervention.

In 2016, I relaunched the outreach programme with my co-founder Daniel Huf and secured some funding from my university to expand into three schools. As we began to develop as an organisation and focus in greater detail on the problems we aimed to tackle, we decided that if we were really going to make a difference in this space, it would make sense to register as a charity. And that’s how The Armitage Foundation was born.

Holistic medicine

We operate on a ‘hub-and-spokes’ model – so, we partner with a university, then work with its local schools.

The universities we work with are all medical institutions, and they provide us with ‘medical ambassadors’ – degree students who help us to connect with the schools in the vicinity. And those schools are deliberately selected on the basis that they have students from underrepresented backgrounds.

We believe in long-term, continuous intervention. At the moment, we’re delivering our programme to Year Eights to Nines and Nines to Tens – but the vision is to shepherd students from Year Eight all the way up to when they formally apply to medical school.

Essentially, our part-theory, part practical courses provide students with a holistic understanding of what it means to be a doctor. For Year Eights and Nines, our syllabus is all about whetting their appetites for medicine – so, for example, we’ll teach them a little bit about the respiratory system and explore the lungs and heart.

Cultivating skills

A typical class comprises a 30- to 40-minute PowerPoint session on how, say, blood pressure works, and then the latter part is all about letting the students handle pieces of equipment such as ECG machines and blood pressure cuffs, so they can start to implement the theory they’ve learned – all while getting to feel, and behave, a bit like doctors.

There’s another, equally important side to our programme, too:

Students who nurture an ambition to study medicine tend to be quite intellectual – they’ll generally be doing quite well at school and will have strong self-motivation. But when they come from underrepresented backgrounds, they may lag in particular soft skills, such as communication skills, plus the ability to perform effectively as part of a team – and to work under pressure. So, as well as equipping them with medical knowledge, we really try to help them cultivate those skills.

In that effort, we benefit greatly from the input of our ambassadors. As they are medical students themselves, they are quite young – so they help us by providing our students with peer-to-peer mentorship. That makes a big impact: school-age students can establish a rapport with one of our ambassadors more easily than they might be able to with an experienced consultant, who may feel comparatively somewhat out of reach.

Expansion plans

The Foundation is endorsed by the BMA, who have also provided us with some funding. When we were getting started, we had a medical advisory panel comprised of different doctors and medical students, who served as a kind of sounding board as we developed our course materials. But the most important input comes from our medical ambassadors – and, of course, the young people we train. They are constantly providing us with feedback that we use to adapt and refine our course materials, ensuring they work most effectively for their intended audience.

We get some fantastic, qualitative feedback about how our students perform at school following our interventions. A lot of them talk about how their confidence has grown – and one young man reported that, as a result of the motivation that our course had given him, he’d jumped – in the space of one term – from Grade 4 to Grade 7 in his Physics GCSE.

Looking ahead, we definitely want to form new partnerships. We’ve already started to branch out of our home turf of London and are now working with schools in Kent. Our existing partnership with King’s College has provided medical ambassadors for that work – which has also been facilitated with the help of Medway Maritime Hospital. Hopefully we will form new relationships elsewhere, too.

At the same time, we are eager to develop our online presence, because the scale of the reach is potentially so much greater – and could help to take us international. So, our two main ambitions at the moment are to see students that we have trained enter medical school – and to expand, so we can inspire further waves of students to follow them.

Voices from our community: Dr Leanne Armitage is CEO and co-founder of The Armitage Foundation.