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Queen Mary Academy

Shedding light on the experiences of medical and dental students from minority backgrounds

Dr Riya George
Dr Riya George, photography by Jonathan Cole
Dr Riya George

Dr Riya George

Reader in Clinical Communication Skills and Diversity Education

Staff and students in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry are working together to understand and improve the experiences of students from minority backgrounds

The overall proportion of students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds at UK medical schools is around 35%, whereas at Queen Mary the proportion is close to 65%. Similarly in Dentistry, around 44% of UK students are from a BAME background, but at Queen Mary the proportion is over 85%. Research suggests that there is a difference in the experiences and attainment between BAME and White medical students but until recently, this issue had not been examined at Queen Mary.

“We wanted to better understand the experience of minority students at the medical and dental school,” says Dr Riya George, reader in clinical communication skills and diversity education. “This was completely fuelled by the Black Lives Matter movement and by our students wanting us to have protected time to explore this issue.”

With Westfield funding, Dr George convened a team of students and staff to carry out a thorough investigation of the issues and potential solutions. Two core members of that team are students Thaarabi Tharmapathy and Harris Nageswaran.

Thaarabi was already serving as BAME student representative and went on to become student chair of the school’s anti-racism steering committee which successful won the Principal’s Education Excellence Awards. 

Harris became involved in the project through his role as vice-president of Barts and The London Students’ Association. He says: “The group was extremely welcoming, and I found that I was able to bring my thoughts to the table as a valued member of the project. I think my perspective of student life was invaluable in helping design the focus of the project.”

The group was extremely welcoming, and I found that I was able to bring my thoughts to the table as a valued member of the project. I think my perspective of student life was invaluable in helping design the focus of the project.
— Harris Nageswaran

The team’s work began with a substantial research project, including staff and students in medicine and dentistry, to explore any differences in students’ experience and attainment. In particular, the team wanted to understand challenges that students were facing both at university and on clinical placements.

Dr George says: “We had over 600 medical student responses who responded to the Anti-Racism in Medicine survey. That’s a huge amount of student feedback and it shed light on a lot of issues.

“The first thing we learned was to remember the ‘ME’ in BAME. That was really around staff and students recognising the diversity within that one catch all category because Black students have very different experiences to Asian or international students.”

The research showed that different students were having very different experiences while working on clinical placements in hospitals. Dr George adds: “These were sad findings in the sense that students were experiencing racism and microaggressions from patients and from staff members. A key find was that the students didn’t know how to handle such situations.”

The research also revealed that racism was a problem in student societies. “We found issues around inclusion, for example around alcohol at events or inappropriate social media comments about diversity issues that staff didn’t see but the whole student body saw.”

Finally, the team also discovered that whilst there was evidence to suggest differential attainment in medicine, it did not seem to be a particular problem in dentistry. “We found a smaller cohort and a better sense of community in the dental school benefits students’ experiences, and we can learn from that,” Dr George explains.

The Westfield funding enabled us to co-create research with our medical and dental students. It enabled us to work across disciplines, and it gave us the protected time for us as staff, but also as students, to really understand the issues that our minority students were facing.
— Dr Riya George


These findings fed into the creation of the anti-racism steering committee, which serves the whole of the Institute of Health Sciences Education. There have been major changes in the curriculum and in how students can report any concerns. A new compulsory module gives students practical examples of what is a concern, what support is there and what will happen if they raise a concern.

Training on equality, diversity and inclusion is now also compulsory for all staff at the school and there is on-site training to cover clinical placements, enabling students to raise a concern no matter which hospital they are based at.

Harris concludes: “I believe the work has already had some impact. Students studying at Barts and The London are incredibly proud and passionate in the student experience and with these findings we hope to be able to ensure this pride is shared by as many students as possible.”

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