Claire Light is Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the General Medical Council (GMC). Claire is leading a project to seek the support of doctors to make sure more of the profession provide diversity monitoring data. Here, Claire explains why it is vital that the GMC gathers this sensitive information, and how it will help develop tools to have a positive impact on the issues some doctors face.
For most of us, providing information about our characteristics has been commonplace for some time, it is now normal to provide this information when we apply for a new job or register with a new service.
As a professional regulator, having information about those we regulate and support is vital. Collecting this information, along with other data, will provide us with a fuller picture to help identify any issues, and to address them, by giving us an understanding of where doctors might face inequality or discrimination.
I know that, at times when we get asked, we can all question why this sort of information is necessary, whether it’s used and if it makes a difference. For the GMC, this information is important, and it will be used positively and proactively to drive forward our equality, diversity and inclusion agenda.
We have worked closely with a number of organisations that represent diversity within the medical workforce, and they are supportive of our work in this area and of this project in particular.
The benefit of having reliable information on the whole of the profession is clear. The input that doctors can provide is important and will be valuable not just for them, but for their peers, colleagues and the wider profession. The small contribution of providing this information, collectively, will generate a huge benefit to the profession as a whole.
It is completely voluntary though and, ultimately, everyone has the right to abstain or to tick the ‘prefer not to say’ box. But I hope that most will support and contribute to what we are doing, which will help us to regulate the profession fairly in a challenging and changing future.
How will the data be gathered?
If you are a doctor reading this, you may be one of a randomly selected group that will soon receive one of four trial emails from us asking you to log onto your GMC Online account to tell us about your personal characteristics. You are likely to have already provided us with your age, gender and ethnicity and we will be asking you to provide your religion, sexual orientation and whether or not you have a disability.
Since 2016, all new doctors joining the GMC register have been asked to provide this information and, in March this year, following the pilot group, we will be asking all doctors on the register to complete this information.
Of course, there will be questions about why the GMC needs this data. Put simply, we are often asked, by doctors and by others, whether we can offer assurances that we are treating specific groups of doctors fairly. It is difficult for us to answer those questions confidently unless we have the necessary information from the profession.
How will the data be used?
We will use this information to analyse and report on statistical trends in medical education and practice in the UK. We will continue to maintain a dialogue with the profession about the trends and findings to ensure we act on the need to change where necessary. Here are some examples of how we already use data to tackle issues and make improvements to help doctors:
- Differential attainment – we have ongoing research into variations in attainment across different groups of doctors, and we are developing practical tools which organisations could use to develop interventions to support trainees.
- Support for doctors new to the UK – we run targeted free workshops for doctors new to UK practice to provide support and guidance to help them understand the ethical issues that they are likely to encounter here.
- Fitness to practice referrals – a major project to better understand why some doctors are referred to us for fitness to practise issues more than others.
Gathering protected characteristics data is common
We are not the only medical regulator to gather this data, others have already introduced it as a mandatory requirement. The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), for example, already does so and as a result it has a fuller picture of the diversity of those it regulates.
I do want to reassure doctors who may be concerned about how we will use this data. It will remain confidential, be anonymised in anything we publish and will be treated with the utmost sensitivity. The data will never be used in fitness to practice or revalidation enquiries and only GMC staff who need to access this information, for example those in analytical roles, will be able to see it.
I recognise this is a sensitive request for some, and one that some doctors may wish to consider carefully. I fully understand the need to do so. My hope is that the majority of doctors who are considering this request will think about the importance of the equality agenda for the profession, and so will respond positively.
In practical terms, it will take less than five minutes to update this data. Without it we will be less able to understand where inequality or discrimination might exist and less able to put policies and initiatives in place to promote fairness and safeguard doctors, now and for the future.