Louise O’Neill is the GMC’s Survey Design Manager. She works with doctors and medical educators to keep the national training surveys up-to-date and relevant.

Here, Louise explains how we keep survey responses confidential, so doctors can feel comfortable telling us what they think about medical education and training across the four countries of the UK.

My job is to make sure that the questions in the national training surveys (NTS) generate the information we need to check that postgraduate training is meeting our standards. A lot of my time is dedicated to speaking to trainees and trainers about what they think the surveys should cover, so that we and our partners continue to identify issues that affect medical education and training environments. It’s fascinating and challenging in equal measure!

Over the years, questions have been changed, added, removed and refined. And sometimes changed back again. From rota design and handover, to workload and burnout, we ask a range of questions to generate a comprehensive picture of specialties, departments, hospitals, GP surgeries, trusts and boards, across the UK.

I run focus groups with doctors to look at how these questions work in practice, and to identify what we might ask in the future. As part of this I often get asked about the confidentiality of survey answers; especially where trainees and trainers work in a small department, or there’s a sensitive issue to tell us about. So, I wanted to explain the steps we take to keep survey answers secure.

There are two ways we collect feedback about training

Multiple choice questions

The majority of survey questions are multiple choice – all questions in the trainer survey, and all but two questions in the trainee survey. For these questions we handle the responses confidentially. This means:

  • We don’t allow anyone outside the surveys team – including those who deliver your training, or other teams in the GMC – to see an individual’s survey responses.
  • We analyse and report answers in aggregated form, so that individuals can’t be identified. If there are fewer than three trainees in a department/practice, we won’t publish the data. And the same rules apply to trainers, if there are fewer than three trainers in a particular specialty or site. But their answers are still important because they’ll still contribute to the overall findings for the doctor’s specialty, region or country.
  • Individual answers are not linked to the code that doctors’ receive when they complete the survey – the code just indicates they participated.
Free text comment boxes in the trainee survey

There are only two of these – one on patient safety concerns and one about bullying and undermining.

If a trainee shares a patient safety concern or reports a bullying and undermining incident, we’ll share this with the relevant postgraduate dean, so they can investigate it, where appropriate. At this stage, we only pass on the training level and speciality of the doctor. If we need to provide more details – such as the individual’s name – in order for the concern to be investigated and resolved, we would let the trainee know about this.

We expect and remind those responsible for delivering training to investigate these concerns sensitively, and protect those who have raised a concern, from any adverse consequences.

Have your say and improve training

What doctors tell us in the survey is important to a range of organisations in medical education – not just to us. It helps postgraduate deans to identify local trends and examples of good practice; it enables medical royal colleges to review their curricula; it encourages employers to support doctors more effectively and it helps us to call out where system pressures are affecting doctors’ training.

If you’re a trainee or trainer reading this blog, I’d encourage you to take part in the surveys this year. Many of the decisions that we and other healthcare organisations make about medical education – including where training sites need to be monitored – are based on what we hear through the surveys. So, please do share your experiences with us – your views really do make a difference.