As doctors struggle to manage their workload under the working time directive, and the NHS reduces its spending on training in the harsh economic climate, will continuous professional development – and ultimately patient care - suffer, asks Doctors.net.uk medical director Tim Ringrose.

A survey conducted earlier last year by medical recruitment company Pulse and Medeconnect - the research arm of Doctors.net.uk – found that the majority of doctors questioned (75 per cent) thought the working time directive had reduced training opportunities.

So how can doctors continue to learn against this backdrop? I believe that a large part of the answer lies in online training – a trend that has been catching on so fast in recent years that eight out of 10 GPs rate online learning as one of the most useful things about the internet.

The survey also found that GPs frequently turn to a range of other online sources for research and learning. Interestingly significant numbers of GPs are using YouTube and Wikipedia to fulfil educational needs as well as health specific websites such as Royal College of GPs, BMJ Learning and GP notebook.

Online resources are not exclusive to doctors. In 2009, HSJ’s sister title Nursing Times launched Nursing Times Learning, which offers online training specifically designed for nurses. The learning units have proved popular and the practice team are currently developing and expanding a programme to meet nurses’ needs. A survey of nearly 400 users in February 2009 found that 95 per cent of nurses would definitely change or consider changing their practice as a result of using the Nursing Times online training.

Doctors.net.uk has certainly noticed a huge shift towards online learning since launching the accredited Continuing Medical Education programme six years ago. During that time, over 1.6 million hours of accredited learning have been delivered. In 2009 alone, more than 23,000 doctors completed one or more online CME programmes and are using online to contribute a significant part of their overall continuing professional development. 

So why is online learning such a winning formula? Flexibility is certainly key both in terms of when and how doctors can undertake learning. On a practical level, completing programmes online enables doctors to fit learning more easily around their professional and personal lives, since courses can be completed in bite-sized chunks and at a time and pace that suits the individual.  

Research conducted within our community shows a clear demand among GPs for such bite-sized learning sessions. Forty two per cent of them prefer sessions to be between 20 and 40 minutes long and 35 per cent favour five to twenty minute sessions.

Online training can also save healthcare providers money, since doctors are more likely to do it in their own time or in quiet times at work, reducing staff costs. However, our research does indicate that more needs to be done to enable GPs to access multi-media based learning at work in terms of internet speeds etc in order for this to happen more readily.

GPs cite slow bandwidth, inability to use flash-based video and lack of sound as the top three reasons why they find it difficult to view multimedia learning content at work.

Another great benefit of online learning is that content can be tailored to individual needs in a way that is simply not possible with lectures and other face-to-face training. It is also easy for doctors to monitor their progress through online assessments, record the outcomes of their learning and share it with their colleagues

Online learning also offers the best of both worlds in terms of interaction and anonymity. When learning in an individual, rather than a group environment, many doctors find it easier to be open about the areas in which they need to improve their knowledge. However, they still have the benefit of being able to collaborate with other doctors online through discussion forums and to ask questions online.

Although online learning can never entirely replace face-to-face teaching in the medical profession, it clearly has a critical role in helping doctors balance their ongoing training needs with time and economic pressures. It has already established itself as a preferred medium for many health professionals and I believe they will continue to exploit its potential in the future – so long as high quality learning services continue to be made available to them.