Headshot of Paul BuckleyPaul Buckley is the Director of Strategy and Policy for the GMC. Here in this blog he explains how we’re using research to influence future policy.

Our health service was at a critical point long before COVID-19 sent shockwaves through its systems. Our most recent The state of medical education and practice in the UK report highlighted, widespread burnout and an array of workforce and workplace pressures leading doctors to consider career breaks and early retirement.

Yet our hospitals and GP surgeries rose to the challenge and weren’t overwhelmed. New, experienced and returning doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals all stepped up to support our existing workforce in a prodigious show of commitment and team working. Flattened hierarchies, greater flexibility and more on-the-ground leadership were welcome silver linings.

These remarkable achievements deserve applause. But above that, crucially, healthcare workers deserve to be heard and listened to.

There has never been a better time for leaders to rethink and rebuild work cultures that better support doctors, encourage retention and protect patients. And our extensive data and research will be key to helping us and our partners achieve this.

Already a wealth of evidence exists to help guide positive change. Last year, our research efforts drilled down into issues damaging doctors’ wellbeing and work lives, which puts us in a strong position to influence recovery policy. For example, our reports on doctors’ inductions, differential attainment and leadership, offer practical solutions.

Now, we’re working to understand the pandemic’s impact on the profession, particularly those who are vulnerable to COVID-19, to help improve future policies. We hope to uncover positives too, so we can learn from and embrace the changes in delivery of service, in education and training and in culture and leadership that will prove valuable in the long-term.  

Keeping doctors safe now and beyond

As a priority, we want to know how and why ethnicity is associated with the COVID-related clinical outcomes of black and minority ethnic healthcare workers. It’s crucial we get to the bottom of this so that the right safeguards can be put in place to protect these professionals – and their families – who have been disproportionately impacted.

We’re supporting a very substantial research project led by Dr Manish Pareek and funded by the NIHR, alongside other regulators, to better understand the risk and the impact this has had on BAME and white healthcare workers’ physical and mental health. This multifaceted study will deliver rapid reports using anonymised registration and NHS datasets, to inform policy leaders in near real-time. There will also be longitudinal work, as well as interviews and focus groups, to guide future pandemic planning and follow-up mechanisms. 

It’s also important we understand how the newest members of the workforce have been supported, as they embark on long and – everyone hopes – rewarding careers in medicine well beyond this crisis. If educational opportunities have been lost or neglected, we need to know. None of our new graduates signed up for a pandemic when they started their studies five years ago, yet thousands have taken on early provisional registration and volunteer positions. We’ve funded the University of Newcastle to study the unique experience of the 2020 F1 cohort, to learn what’s gone well, what could have been better and what wider learning has come out of this.

Our annual barometer survey – the final project in our current work exploring the impact of the pandemic– will help us understand, based on a representative sample, how the wider profession has coped, and how this has impacted their future career plans. The results will be published in our next The state of medical education and practice in the UK  report before the end of the year.

Moving forward

While it’s important we focus on the crisis at hand, we mustn’t lose sight of the long-standing issues that are impacting our medical workforce. Health leaders must re-double efforts to work together to tackle examples of poor induction and support, difficult work patterns and barriers to learning that have blighted too many doctors’ work lives for years.

From a personal point of view, as I enter my 25th year with the GMC and contemplate retiring at the end of this year, I have reflected on the benefits of the very significant investment the GMC has made in data and research in the past decade. Tools such as GMC Data Explorer , products such as our workforce report and collaborative initiatives such as UKMED are definitely helping to shine a light on issues that previously flew below the radar, or where evidence was weak. But that investment will only have been worthwhile if it helps lead to change.

So now our research is focused where change is needed most – the workplace and workforce. We hope these projects can make a real difference for doctors now and in the future and ask policy leaders to listen and act with pace. We’ll keep working with our partners across the four UK countries to push for positive change.