Our barometer survey is run each year to find out how doctors’ experiences of practising in the UK are changing over time. It is a key source of evidence for our report into The state of medical education and practice in the UK.

Here, Francis Leng, Research Manager at the GMC, talks about how the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected the survey and informed this year’s report.

This has been a year like no other for the doctors in our health services, with the pandemic impacting every aspect of how they work and train.

Our report into The state of medical education and practice includes a snapshot of doctors’ experiences during the spring peak of the pandemic. It shows that although its effects have been felt universally, doctors’ experiences have been far from uniform, with the challenges and pressures they face varying depending on a range of factors.

The barometer survey is one of the key pieces of data that informs the report. It tracks doctors’ experiences of practising in the UK so we can see how the have changed over time.

A unique insight

We’re always conscious of striking a balance between gathering doctors’ views and taking up too much of their already stretched time. That’s why we thought very carefully and spoke to stakeholders about whether running the survey this year was the right thing to do.

Their unanimous feedback was that the survey should go ahead in an adapted form, as it was important to gather doctors’ views during this unique time. Within the survey we directly asked the profession about the pandemic, including a whole new section of questions to explore how doctors’ day-to-day roles have changed. But we also kept a core set of tracking questions, that will allow us to continue to understand trends in doctors’ wider experiences, wellbeing and career intentions.

We commissioned research agency IFF to conduct the research. A sample of 31,000 doctors were invited to take part in the online survey. This was followed by a ‘snowballing’ exercise and a healthcare professional research panel to boost the response from younger doctors and doctors in training.

More than 3,600 doctors completed the survey between 15 June – 19 July 2020. To make sure the findings were representative, weighting was applied using GMC population data on age, registration status, ethnicity and place of primary medical qualification.

Mixed experiences

The findings provide a fascinating insight into doctors’ experiences during the spring peak of the pandemic and the huge impact it’s had on their day-to-day working lives.

Four fifths (81%) reported that the changes to their work were significant, and four in ten (42%) were redeployed. Doctors reported their work had changed in many ways, from the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), to dealing with the technological and personal challenges of providing remote care.

The findings highlighted some clear areas for concern. A third of doctors felt that the pandemic negatively impacted their mental health and wellbeing, and an even higher proportion said training and development opportunities had reduced. Almost half of doctors (43%) reported situations where their own or a colleague’s safety was at risk during 2020.

But doctors also experienced positive changes across several areas of their work, and many told us there are positive lessons that can be taken from the spring peak. They reported better teamworking and increased opportunities to share knowledge, and this year fewer said they were struggling with high workloads and burnout.

There is of course a wider story to consider here. It’s likely the cancellation of non-urgent care contributed towards reduced workloads. This has affected patient access to care and doctors have stated concerns about the impact this could have on workload in the future.

In the face of a pandemic, our health services have had to adapt. They’ve shown great flexibility and innovation. But, its impact will be felt for many years to come, with the lasting effects on patients and healthcare staff still unknown.

At the GMC, the data we collect underpins all the work we do. On its own, this year’s barometer findings have captured a unique moment in time. But, they will form part of an ongoing analysis that will track the full impact of the pandemic over the coming years, providing the evidence base we will need to support both doctors and patients as we face the future together.

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