How to Become a Doctor in the UK

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is widely considered one of the best healthcare systems in the world. The opportunity to work and practice in a world-renowned health service and have a well-paid career with lots of room for growth is a privilege that many medical students and qualified doctors are grateful for.

However, becoming a doctor is no easy feat. The competition to study medicine at a UK university is fierce, with acceptance rates as low as 5% at some medical schools. Also, the road to becoming a doctor in the UK is a long one, and the training can take anywhere between seven and fifteen years.

Becoming a doctor in the UK is demanding and requires absolute dedication, but at the end of the process, doctors are rewarded with high job satisfaction, good pay, and the added bonus that their day-to-day work saves countless lives. So how do you become a doctor in the UK?

In this article, we are going to take a look at the different routes to becoming a doctor in the UK, what they require, what they entail, and how they differ from one another. So if you are a young person looking to pursue your studies in medicine, or if you are already working but want a career change, then read on.

How to become a doctor in the UK

To become a doctor in the UK, you must obtain a university degree in medicine from a medical school recognised by the General Medical Council (GMC) – the public body in the UK that regulates the registration of medical practitioners. All doctors in the UK must hold a license to practice and be registered with the GMC.

A degree in medicine typically lasts five years in total, or four years if you are already a graduate in another subject. Once graduated, you then enter a foundation programme for two years. During your first year of the foundation programme, you will receive a license to practice, and by the end of that year, you will be fully registered.

How long does it take to become a doctor?

The time it takes to become a doctor largely depends on what kind of doctor you want to be. Some specialist training routes can take well over a decade from start to finish. Most doctors complete their foundation training within seven years and then have a number of years as junior doctors whilst learning their specialism. Learning a specialism can take between three and ten years.

One of the appealing aspects of medicine for many doctors and student doctors is the potential to continue learning and developing skills and knowledge over their careers. Many doctors choose to do a PhD and publish scientific medical papers relating to their practice as they continue work.

Medical training may take a set amount of time, but as medicine and science continue to develop, doctors continue to learn throughout their careers.

How to apply to medical school

Most prospective doctors in the UK will train as undergraduates at university. Of the 130 UK universities, 37 have medical schools either as part of the university or with which they are affiliated.

Most medical schools will require a minimum of three A-levels (or equivalent): one in Chemistry; one in either Biology, Maths or Physics; and one in another subject.

Places at medical school are highly competitive, and they usually demand very high grades. Many may also want you to have four A-levels rather than three. You may also need to have strong GCSE grades too.

If you didn’t study the requisite A-levels but then decide to study for a medical degree, there is a foundation year course to prepare you for your studies.

As most medical schools have an interview stage, you will also need to put together an excellent personal statement and thoroughly prepare for an interview. Most schools and colleges can perform mock interviews with students before they are interviewed. However, if your school doesn’t have anyone who can offer that service, then the head of the sixth form should bring someone in from outside of the school.

Studying medicine

Once you have secured a place to study for an undergraduate medical degree, you will spend five years as a medical student at university. Those five years will be comprised of a combination of lectures and training in basic medical sciences, practical classes, individual research, exams, and placements within local hospitals.

After the five years of core medical training and studying for your medical degree, you then do a two-year foundation programme. You start earning a salary as soon as you begin the programme. During the foundation programme, you continue to be trained and assessed, but you also work in the NHS as a doctor. You work in several different fields and departments that cover many different areas of medicine.

Upon the completion of your foundation programme, you are officially a junior doctor. Junior doctors choose their specialist area and decide if they want to be a hospital doctor or continue on to GP training to train as a general practitioner. Depending on your path of choice, learning your specialism can take anywhere between three and ten years.

Graduate entry programme

There is a graduate-entry programme for prospective doctors who have already graduated with an undergraduate degree that wasn’t in medicine. Not all medical schools offer this route, but it is becoming increasingly common for them to do so. Once completed, doctors from the graduate entry programme have the same prospects as any other qualified doctor.

To gain a place on the programme, you will usually need a 2.1 in your first degree, though some medical schools will require a first-class degree for an application. Most medical schools require your first degree to be in a science or biomedical discipline. However, some schools will let you apply if your degree is not in one of the sciences, though you will likely have to complete a preparatory course.

The graduate route into medicine is mainly similar to the undergraduate route. However, university studies on the graduate programme are accelerated and last only four years instead of five. Once the four years are complete, graduates from both routes enter the foundation programme, which is the same for every student doctor.

Does it matter which medical school I go to?

The GMC does not have a league table of medical schools in the UK. All medical schools are officially viewed as equal and provide the same opportunities for graduates as the qualification and syllabus are standardised. The course structure may vary, but the overall content is the same.

So, when it comes to choosing a medical school, you should consider other variables such as the location of the university, the hospitals in the surrounding area in which you will undertake various placements, and what you enjoy outside of medicine that may be on offer at the university.

International doctors

International doctors who wish to practice in the UK must be registered with the GMC and hold a licence to practice. You will need to apply for both of these, and you may be required to undertake additional training or an internship before you are accepted.

The requirements for registration in the UK depend on a number of factors. You should first check that your qualification is acceptable to apply for registration with the GMC. There will then be additional requirements for registration that will depend on:

  • your nationality
  • the country you gained your primary medical qualification
  • the type of work you want to do
  • whether or not you have completed a period of postgraduate training or an internship.

International doctors are also required to demonstrate their English language skills before they can be registered. In addition to this, you will need a UK visa to gain the right to enter and work in the UK.

The NHS has a comprehensive guide for international doctors on applying for registration and a licence and the different requirements for different parts of the world.

How to register with the General Medical Council

No one is permitted to practice medicine in the UK unless registered with the General Medical Council. The exact requirements for registration differ for each application. But generally, registration takes the following steps:

  • To register with the general medical council, you will first need to check that you are eligible to do so.
  • Once you have confirmed your eligibility, you must complete an online application form and pay a fee of £150.
  • You will then receive an email from the GMC detailing the exact evidence you need to provide for your application.
  • You must then scan your evidence files and email them back within 28 days of being requested to do so.
  • If the evidence is accepted, you will then be asked to attend an identity check within three months.
  • Once your identity is confirmed, your registration is complete.

Evidence required from all applicants

English language skills

All applicants to the GMC must demonstrate proficiency in reading, speaking, and writing in English. This ensures that no patient is at risk when in the care of a doctor who may not understand what they are trying to communicate.

Evidence of your fitness to practise

All applicants must also provide details of their postgraduate medical experience, other non-medical experience, and activities outside of work since graduation. The GMC may also ask for employer references and will need to see a certificate of good standing from any medical authority you have been registered or licensed with. This evidence demonstrates your ability to continue to work to a high standard and that you have the fitness and capacity to work at the level demanded by the GMC.

Evidence required from overseas applicants

An acceptable overseas qualification

Your medical qualification needs to be accepted by the GMC. You can check here if you have an acceptable medical qualification. Your medical qualification needs to be independently verified before your registration can be granted.

Knowledge and skills

To practice medicine in the UK as an overseas student, you will need to demonstrate that you have the knowledge and skills necessary.

There are a number of ways you can do this. Acceptable demonstrations include:

  • Passing the Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) test. This is the route most overseas doctors take to practice medicine in the UK. The PLAB is a two-part exam that tests the candidate’s medical knowledge.
  • Possess an acceptable postgraduate qualification. You can see what is regarded as acceptable by the GMC here.
  • Gaining sponsorship from an approved sponsor.
  • Holding a relevant and acceptable European qualification.
  • Being eligible to apply for the Specialist Register or the GP Register.

The path to becoming a doctor is a long but rewarding one. Studies for an undergraduate medical degree are two years longer than for most undergraduate degrees, and that’s only the start of many years of training. However, doctors begin earning during their foundation programme, and their salaries have the potential to grow throughout their careers.

Many people turn to a medical career after university or after another career and there is now a graduate-entry programme to accommodate these prospective doctors. Becoming a doctor is demands hard work, dedication, and a passion for helping others. But with saving and changing lives being part of the job description, it is clear to see why many doctors believe they have the best job in the world.

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