Even as a young child, Sophie Rainbow (MBBS Medicine 2022) knew she wanted to be a doctor. “I actually can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else,” she says. “I only started realising how difficult it would be or how much work I need to put in when I got a bit older – but I still wanted to do it.”
Rainbow didn’t have any friends or family who were doctors – and it had been a few years since anyone at her school in Enfield, north London, had applied for Medicine. But by the time she started sixth form, she was both more determined and more daunted than ever about achieving her dream. “I didn’t even know where to start. There were exams, interviews, work experience – I just had no idea how to go about any of it.”
But one of her teachers suggested Imperial’s Pathways to Medicine, a two-year widening participation programme, delivered in partnership with the Sutton Trust and with support from Health Education England and philanthropy. It aims to diversify and widen the pipeline of prospective medical students and support young people from state schools and colleges in their application to medical school.
Throughout Years 12 and 13, sixth formers participate in a series of activities, including taster sessions on different strands of medicine, talks by admissions tutors, academics and practising doctors, and opportunities to meet and chat with current Imperial Medicine students.
“We did practise for medical school interviews, which I found very useful,” says Rainbow. “I completely screwed up the first mock interview and was so upset, but I had another go and it got better, and that definitely set me up for the for the real thing.” She attended a summer school – “that was fun because I'd never been in a proper lab before” – and Imperial also helped organise a work experience placement. “They arranged for me to go to Hammersmith Hospital on one of the children’s wards, which I don’t think I would have ever been able to get without them.”
Taking part in the programme convinced Rainbow to apply to Imperial, where she was offered a place. “Our head of year came into my form room to personally congratulate me in front of the whole class. It was really embarrassing. But it was a big deal. I was a bit of a celebrity that week. I still had to get the grades though – luckily I did!” This year she graduated from Imperial and is now working in an ICU in Manchester.
Nearly 600 students have benefited so far, across nine cohorts, but the programme gets far more applications than there are places – in 2020 there were 900 applications for 60 spots. The aim is to choose those most in need of the support. “We’re looking for students who might be on free school meals, who might be the first generation to go to university, those who live within postcodes that have low participation in higher education or fit multiple indices of deprivation,” says Dr Melanie Bottrill (MSci Chemistry 2004; PhD 2009), Imperial’s Head of Outreach Programmes.
“A lot of students come from low-income families or have caring responsibilities at home. All of these are barriers that can potentially limit their aspiration to go on to higher education,” she says. “For students who don’t know anyone who has studied Medicine, don’t have those role models, but who aspire to do this incredibly vocational subject, it can feel slightly impenetrable.”
Professor Kevin Murphy (PhD Investigative Science 2001) is the academic lead for Pathways. “I was quite conscious, looking across the sector, that students coming in from more selective schools perhaps had a better chance of getting into Medicine – but that didn’t necessarily mean they were going to be the best doctors,” he says. “And I was very conscious of the fact that for people from non-selective state schools, it wasn’t always easy to understand what medical schools were looking for and how they could best increase their chances.”
Another three medical schools are now part of the Pathways to Medicine consortium, and Murphy says that everyone is aware of the issue and trying hard to diversify their intake. “But in many cases you’re dealing with 18 years of social, economic and educational imbalance before you apply to university. It’s very difficult to level that playing field. So, anything we can do to give students who had fewer opportunities a greater chance to get into Medicine the better.”
And having a more diverse selection of medical students isn’t just the morally right thing to do, he says – it’s for the benefit of the health service. “Outside of the social justice argument, the NHS is serving the general population, and it makes sense that the make-up of the NHS reflects the population it’s serving. There’s some evidence that having people who come from a similar background or ethnicity as you can also help patients engage with the health service and improves their care.”
Nagad Bille (Medicine, Second Year) is another to have benefited from the Pathways programme. “At my school there was always talk about how hard Medicine is and how difficult it is to get in, so I was expecting it to be really competitive,” she says. “But I wasn’t expecting there to be so many entrance exams, and I didn’t know about interviews until I joined Pathways. So that was a shock!”
Besides enjoying the mock interview practice, there was also support and practice for the University Clinical Aptitude Test and BioMedical When I was offered a place it was a big deal. I was a bit of a celebrity that week Sophie Rainbow (MBBS Medicine 2022) Admissions Test entrance exams. But one of the most useful parts, says Bille, was the e-mentoring scheme, which connects participants with current medical students for help and advice. “Just having someone that I could always message if I had any queries about Medicine was great,” she says. “It was a lot of help during interview season and the application process as well – just to know someone who had been through it was there if I needed to ask anything.”
Now in her second year, Bille is returning the favour and acting as an e-mentor to new cohorts on the programme. “I just felt like I got so much support from my mentors, I wanted to give that to someone else. It’s really pleasing when I’m able to help someone out with some advice, or just to share my experience.” Seeing members of past cohorts like this come through medical school and then give back to others hoping to follow their lead is incredibly rewarding, says Bottrill. “Role models are so important.”
Sophie Rainbow, who is just setting out on her dream career, is happy to be an ambassador for Pathways. “I think one of the hardest parts of medical school is getting in, and I didn’t know anyone who had done it who I could ask for advice,” she says. “The Pathways Programme was so important for just giving me that step up.”
Imperial is the magazine for the Imperial community. It delivers expert comment, insight and context from – and on – the College’s engineers, mathematicians, scientists, medics, coders and leaders, as well as stories about student life and alumni experiences.
This story was published originally in Imperial 53/Winter 2022-23.