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How to Become a Doctor

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Doctor

What does a doctor do?

There are many types of doctors in the UK. Some work in hospitals, the community, health centres and even the armed forces. There are also various specialisms available, so it would be difficult to cover all types of doctors in this article. Here, you will focus on how to become a GP. A GP is also known as a general practitioner or doctor. They provide continuing medical services to patients in their local community and are typically the first point of contact for people seeking help with an illness or injury.

GPs’ duties can include diagnosing and treating common medical conditions, referring patients to hospitals and other services for further assessment and treatment, running specialist clinics and providing general health advice to help patients take ownership of their own health. Their role also involves a lot of administrative and IT work, such as typing up notes, completing prescriptions, writing reports, keeping records, etc. A GP’s day-to-day tasks will depend on the patients they see and their seniority within the practice.

A GP’s main aim is to care for patients’ physical and mental health and ensure they receive the treatment they need. Some patients have long-term health conditions, e.g. mental health issues, diabetes and cancer. Therefore, a good, caring GP can make a difference to these people’s lives. Overall, being a GP is about improving outcomes for patients who need medical help. They can even save lives.

GPs will work with many people, including other GPs, nurses and support staff at the practice. They will also liaise with others, such as patients and their families, other healthcare professionals (at hospitals, mental health facilities, care/nursing homes, laboratories, pharmacies etc.) and regulators, such as the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Local Authorities. They may also need to work with the police, coroners and legal professionals if something happens to a patient.

GPs will predominately work at their local community GP surgery, but they may also work at a health centre or see patients at their homes or other settings, e.g. care homes. They will usually work for the National Health Service (NHS) but can also work in the private healthcare sector. There may also be limited opportunities to be a GP in the armed forces, civil service (e.g. prison doctors) and with medical charities. Some roles enable GPs to work overseas. They can also work via an agency or be self-employed (as a locum GP).

Responsibilities

A GP’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including where they work, their specialist areas and the patients they see day-to-day.

Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Talking to patients, e.g. face-to-face, online or on the telephone.
  • Investigating potential causes of illnesses/health problems and diagnosing symptoms, including checking medical histories before appointments.
  • Maintaining patient confidentiality and impartiality.
  • Prescribing medication and other types of treatments while keeping abreast of medical developments.
  • Responding appropriately if a patient requires emergency care while waiting for further assistance, i.e. an ambulance.
  • Developing treatment plans for patients with long-term illnesses.
  • Conducting minor surgery.
  • Referring patients to specialists for further assessment and diagnosis (where necessary).
  • Organising, providing and leading specialist clinics for specific medical conditions/groups, e.g. diabetes, asthma, smoking cessation and newborns.
  • Providing general health advice and promoting health education.
  • Researching ways to improve healthcare.
  • Working with practice colleagues to provide the best possible care to patients.
  • Liaising with other healthcare and medical professionals.
  • Completing various admin, e.g. fitness for work statements, repeat prescriptions, death certificates, letters and reports.
  • Assisting with the training of junior doctors and others working in healthcare.

If a GP is a practice partner, they may also be responsible for finances, budgeting, contracts and employing staff.

Working hours

A GP can expect to work around 45–50 hours a week. A typical day for a GP will start at approx 8am and finish between 5.30pm and 6.30pm, but this can vary depending on the number of patients, their medical/health problems and any other outstanding work. Some GPs can also work part-time or on a flexible contract.

GPs usually have to work evenings, weekends and bank holidays on a rota. However, this will depend on the surgery opening times and appointments offered.

Travel is usually a requirement for GPs, as they may visit patients in their homes or other settings, such as care homes. They may also travel to health centres and clinics, which may lengthen the working day. Overseas travel is an option for some GPs, e.g. working for the armed forces or medical charities.

What to expect

Being a GP is not easy, but it is a rewarding career choice, as they help treat people’s health and medical conditions and can even save lives. GPs can go home at the end of the working day knowing they have made a difference to patients and their families. They are also classed as key workers and are respected and appreciated in society.

There is no shortage of GP (and related) roles – jobs are available nationally, and there are different areas to specialise. The salary is also competitive compared to other career choices, even at the entry level. However, it does reflect the level of education, training, time and commitment needed to become a GP.

Boredom will never be a problem for GPs, as their work is very varied and fast-paced. They will see patients from all walks of life with various medical needs and health problems during their working day. One moment they could have a patient with an infection, and the next, they could have someone with a life-threatening illness.

The role requires research and investigation, almost like a detective, and will suit inquisitive individuals who like learning. Investigating and diagnosing medical/health conditions, providing appropriate treatments and seeing improvements in a patient’s quality of life can be a real boost.

Even though being a GP is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:

  • Mental and emotional demands – each patient will have different medical needs; some may have life-limiting illnesses or complex long-term health conditions, and some may require emergency care. GPs will need to be capable of working in these challenging environments. They have a lot of responsibility, and making mistakes could worsen conditions and even cost lives. It can be emotionally demanding dealing with injured or unwell patients and their families. Babies and young children may also be involved, which can be too much for some people.
  • Time pressures – GPs will have to see many patients throughout their working day and only have a certain amount of time per appointment. They also need to look at medical histories before every patient and will have various administrative tasks in between. Therefore, individuals need to have excellent time management. It can be stressful when juggling different demands.
  • Unpleasant sights – some health/medical conditions may be unpleasant to see and treat. There may be bodily fluids, burns, broken bones, wounds, sores, pus, and other unpleasant sights and smells. If an individual is squeamish and would not like looking at body parts, being a GP would probably not be the right career path.
  • Exposure to germs – employers must have precautions to reduce the risk of exposure to germs, such as viruses, fungi and bacteria, i.e. infection control. However, prospective GPs should be aware that there is a risk of exposure when working with different patients in a clinical environment.
  • Work-related violence – there is a risk of verbal and physical abuse when working in any healthcare environment. It is usually due to alcohol and drug-related issues, but people can also lash out when in pain or distress or if they have a mental health condition. Employers have a duty to reduce and manage the risk of work-related violence, so there are ways of prevention. However, GPs must be aware of the risk, as they often see patients alone.

 

Becoming a licensed GP can take up to ten years. Therefore, individuals must prepare for an intense period of study, work-based learning, tests, exams and registration.

Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective GPs must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working in healthcare and with injured or unwell people is challenging and stressful. It is also emotionally and mentally demanding, there are time pressures, the working days can be long, and there can be unpleasant sights and violence. However, there are many positives, and helping people is why individuals become GPs.

When considering whether to be a GP, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a doctor

Some of the personal qualities a GP requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • A passion for medicine and helping people.
  • Non-judgemental, empathetic and compassionate.
  • Determined, honest, resourceful and trustworthy.
  • Knowledge of medicine and psychology.
  • Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
  • Science skills.
  • Counselling and active listening skills.
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills.
  • Judgement and observational skills.
  • Organisational and time management skills.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Leadership and business skills (if a practice partner).
  • Integrity, motivation, perseverance, sensitivity and understanding.
  • Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
  • The ability to take criticism.
  • The ability to work well under pressure juggling different demands.
  • The ability to work with other healthcare professionals in multidisciplinary teams.
  • The ability to make decisions, sometimes quickly, even in difficult situations.
  • The ability to be patient and remain calm and confident in challenging and stressful situations.
  • The ability to be flexible and manage change.
  • The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices, and software packages.

Qualifications and training

Qualifications

To become a doctor, individuals need to complete a degree in medicine recognised by the General Medical Council. Unlike other undergraduate degrees, which usually take three years full time, medical degrees take five to six years. A six-year medical degree is typically for those with no science qualifications and includes a one-year pre-medical or foundation year.

Individuals could complete the degree in four years (accelerated four-year graduate-entry programme) if they already have at least a 2:1 degree in a science subject.

To be accepted for an undergraduate degree in medicine, individuals will typically require:

  • At least five GCSEs grades 9 to 7 (A* or A), including English, maths and sciences.
  • Three high-grade A levels (AAA-ABB) (or equivalent), e.g. biology, physics and chemistry.

Some universities may ask individuals to pass a University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT). Getting a placement at medical school is highly competitive, and some institutions may also require a personal statement and interview. The grades and tests will depend on the university entry requirements, and individuals should check before applying.

Registration

After completing an approved medical degree, individuals must register with the GMC for a licence to practise as a GP in the UK. Registration must be renewed annually to continue to practise. There is a cost to become registered and for maintaining registration.

Doctors who have achieved an overseas qualification will still need to register with the GMC to practise legally and will be required to pass the PLAB (Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board) test. The RCGP has a guide for overseas doctors, which can be accessed here.

Foundation programme

After graduating with a degree in medicine and registering with the GMC, individuals must complete a two-year UK Foundation Programme (paid practical training) to help them develop clinical and non-clinical skills. Individuals will be supervised during this period while working across a wide range of medical specialities.

The programme is split into Foundation Year 1 (F1) and Foundation Year 2 (F2). Individuals will be provisionally registered with a licence to practise while completing the first year. After successfully completing F1, individuals will be given full registration by the GMC. After completing F2, individuals will be eligible for the Foundation Programme Certificate of Completion (FPCC), allowing them to enter a general practice training programme.

Further information about the UK Foundation Programme can be found here.

Specialist training in general practice

To become a GP, individuals must complete a three-year specialist training course in general practice (GP Specialty Training (GPST)). This training includes an 18- to 24-month period working as a speciality registrar in a hospital to gain experience in various roles, e.g.:

This training includes an 18- to 24-month period working as a speciality registrar in a hospital to gain experience in various roles, e.g.:

  • General medicine.
  • Geriatric (elderly care) medicine.
  • Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
  • Paediatrics.
  • Psychiatry.

Once complete, individuals will then go on to train as a GP speciality registrar in general practice for 12–18 months. This is where GPs will receive mentoring from an experienced GP and other healthcare professionals. Further information can be found here (England).

The training is slightly different for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Further details can be found on:

Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT)

To become a GP, individuals must possess a Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT). To acquire a CCT, they must pass the MRCGP assessments for Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) membership.

This includes three MRCGP exams:

  • Applied Knowledge Test (AKT).
  • Clinical Skills Assessment (CSA)/Recorded Consultation Assessment (RCA).
  • Workplace Based Assessment (WBA).

Once an individual has a CCT, they can apply to be added to the GMC GP Register and apply for jobs.

Medical students work experience

Work experience and volunteering

Before applying for medical school, individuals must have some paid or voluntary work experience in a healthcare environment. Practical experience helps individuals understand what is involved in working in a healthcare setting, builds their knowledge and skills, and allows them to appreciate the emotional and physical demands of the job and environment.

Individuals may be able to apply for relevant work experience in healthcare settings, such as hospitals, hospices, care homes, nursing homes, GP practices, ambulance trusts, charities or health centres. Shadowing and observing doctors is also recommended to see what the role entails.

Further information and advice on work placements can be found on:

There is also information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.

As entry is highly competitive, undertaking relevant and varied work experience can increase an individual’s chances of being accepted into medical school. Where possible, individuals should try and get work experience involving contact with patients, GPs and other healthcare professionals.

Training courses

Learning does not stop once a GP becomes qualified and registered. Undertaking postgraduate qualifications (part-time) and relevant short training courses can help GPs enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current. It can also help individuals with entry to medical school.

Most colleges and accredited private training providers provide training courses.

Some examples that may be useful for GPs include:

  • Safeguarding.
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion.
  • Infection control.
  • Needles and sharps.
  • PPE in healthcare.
  • Mental health and capacity.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Customer service skills.
  • Clinical decision-making skills.
  • Health and safety, e.g. COSHH, stress and work-related violence.
  • Data protection and the GDPR.
  • IT skills.

Professional bodies and associations, such as the GMC, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), the National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) and the British Medical Association (BMA), can advise on reputable training courses. They also have memberships, events, support services and guidance that can help GPs and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is mandatory for GMC registration renewal (revalidation). Also, see CPD courses for doctors for further guidance on CPD.

The training a GP will require will depend on where they want to work, their role in medicine and the CPD requirements for GMC registration. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the qualifications and other training needed for specialist roles.

Jobs can be found on NHS Jobs, BMJ Careers, NHSScotland Jobs, HealthJobsUK, RCGP Jobs, GP Jobs and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies, as they may offer locum jobs.

Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for GPs. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under legislation and keeps knowledge and skills up to date.

Criminal records checks

GPs will be required to undergo an enhanced criminal record check, as they will come into contact with children and vulnerable adults. A criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. It can even affect GMC registration. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Driving

Some doctors will need to drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community or as a locum GP. Therefore, they should have a full driving licence.

Doctor working in a health centre

Where do doctors work?

Doctors mainly work for the NHS but can also work for other employers in the private healthcare sector, civil service, armed forces and the charitable sector. They can also work for agencies as a locum GP or be self-employed/freelance.

They will mainly work in GP surgeries/practices in the local community, which can be in cities, towns and villages.

They may also work and visit other places during their working day, such as:

  • Health centres.
  • Patients’ homes.
  • Care homes.
  • Nursing homes.
  • Hospitals.
  • Hospices.
  • Community centres and village halls.
  • Clinics.
  • Urgent treatment centres.
  • Prisons.
  • Their own homes (if working remotely).

Some doctors may also work overseas.

Speciality doctor

How much do doctors earn?

The exact salaries for GPs will depend on:

  • Where they are in their training.
  • The location, i.e. if they are working in London, they will receive a supplement.
  • Their experience.
  • Whether they are employed, self-employed or freelance.
  • Their working hours, e.g. full-time, part-time, locum or flexible.
  • Whether they work for the NHS, privately or for other employers.

 

Here are some examples of salaries for England (these figures are a guide only and are subject to change):

  • Junior doctors in Foundation Year 1 (F1) – £29,384 a year.
  • Junior doctors in Foundation Year 2 (F2) – £34,012 a year.
  • Salaried general practitioners (GPs) – £62,268–£93,965 a year (depending on the length of service and experience).
  • Speciality doctors – £50,373 to £78,759 a year.

Doctors in training receive additional payments for overtime and an enhancement for working nights and weekends and being on-call. Salaried doctors will also receive further benefits, e.g. pension scheme, sick pay, holiday pay and maternity pay.

There is potential for GPs to earn more if they work in the private healthcare sector or as a locum GP. Experienced doctors may be able to earn higher salaries if they combine clinical work with research and teaching or if they become a practice partner.

Self-employed GPs’ salaries (e.g. partners and locums) will depend on many factors. For example, partners will receive a share of the profits from the business and can earn more but will not receive benefits and will need to pay self-employment costs, e.g. tax and National Insurance.

Specialist mental health doctor

Types of doctor roles to specialise in

GPs can choose to be salaried or work for themselves or an agency. There are also many types of GP roles to choose from, including:

  • GP partners – have more responsibilities and control of running the practice and the overall business alone or with other GPs. They can make employment decisions and will be responsible for finances and budgeting.
  • Locum GPs – can work at different practices temporarily. They are usually self-employed or work for an agency.
  • Mobilisation GPs – provide support at a local and national level and can also help set up and start new practices and services.
  • Remote GPs – predominately work from home doing telephone consultations but can be combined with visits, i.e. hybrid working.

A GP can also specialise in specific areas of healthcare and is known as a GP with Extended Roles (GPwER) (used to be GP with Special Interest (GPwSI)). Some examples of these extended roles can include (this list is not exhaustive):

Some examples of these extended roles can include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Dermatology – specialises in the skin and its various conditions.
  • Mental health – specialises in mental health conditions, e.g. depression.
  • Emergency medicine – specialises in injuries and illnesses that require urgent medical attention.
  • Women’s health – specialises in women’s specific health matters, e.g. contraception, pregnancy and menopause.
  • Cardiology – specialises in disorders of the heart and cardiovascular system.
  • Sports medicine – specialises in injuries relating to sports and exercise.

All different GP roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications, e.g. postgraduate and additional training for specialised areas. Most GPs will need to know how to diagnose and treat different medical/health problems, provide health advice, prescribe medications, recommend treatments and maintain medical records. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for (if employed) and the type of work a GP wants.

If GPs do not carry out their role effectively, it can result in a patient’s physical/mental health or injury worsening and may even cost lives. It can also affect a GP’s reputation. In serious cases, they may have their registration and licence to practise revoked (struck off). Therefore, whatever the type of role, GPs must have the necessary competence to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.

Career progression to head GP

Professional bodies

Standards, technology, drugs, medications, treatments and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, GPs must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives GPs the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with the GMC and allows them to progress in their career.

Joining a professional body can help prospective and current GPs enhance their skills and overall career. The GMC, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK), the National Association of Sessional GPs (NASGP) and the British Medical Association offer different levels of membership, CPD, access to industry contacts, support, advice and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression within medicine. With more qualifications and experience, a GP can become a lead GP, a hospital doctor and even a consultant. They can also decide to develop in a specific area, such as diabetes, epilepsy or children’s health. Alternatively, they may choose to become a partner in a practice or become a self-employed locum.

Knowledge, skills and experience in medicine can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a GP may want to work in education and training, clinical research and development, or other areas of healthcare, e.g. epidemiology. They may also decide to work in different sectors, such as the armed forces, sports, the prison service or the pharmaceutical industry.

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