Various continuing medical education (CME) options are available for general practitioners (GPs). These options differ in their clinical effectiveness and GPs’ preferences for learning format. We report on a national survey, conducted by NPS MedicineWise, identifying Australian GPs’ preferences for CME.
A stratified random sample of 2500 GPs in Australia participated in the survey in 2012. Reponses to the questions on GPs’ preferences for CME activities and motivation for choice were analysed.
Most GPs (95%) preferred learning in a group rather than on their own. Specifically, 83% preferred face-to-face lecture-based formats; 70% preferred interactive group discussions; 66% preferred one-to-one learning with an expert; and 55% preferred online self-education. Relevance to clinical practice was the key motivation for participation (80%).
Although GPs are increasingly using online learning, conventional face-to-face activities with peers and experts remain popular. Lecture-based CME continues to be preferred, despite evidence suggesting other modalities may be more effective. CME activities delivered through a combination of methods are likely to appeal to the wide range of GP preferences while optimising clinical outcomes.
General practitioners (GPs) face a plethora of options when deciding which continuing medical education (CME) activities to undertake. The CME industry for GPs continues to grow as the number of professional learning providers increases and new technologies create new learning platforms and opportunities. Online CME is expected to comprise half of all CME within a few years.1
In the midst of these growing choices it is important to note that learning techniques differ in their clinical effectiveness and in GP preferences. With regard to the relative effectiveness of different learning techniques, previous studies have found that:
- live meetings are more effective than print media2
- individual academic detailing has greater long-term effectiveness than group detailing3
- interactive and procedural formats are more effective than lecture-based CME activities for helping participants retain information and change practice2,4,5
- web-based programs are as effective as live, small-group, interactive programs6
- programs that include multiple techniques (eg. live activities mixed with online activities) are more effective than singular methods.7
Specifically, online education following a live CME course can significantly increase the impact of a face-to-face course.7
Despite this evidence that other learning modalities are more effective, large-group CME activities continue to be predominantly lecture-based.8 In other words, there is a gap between evidence and practice9 and this could be due to a lack of fit between what is effective and what is preferred by GPs. In a previous study, 46% of responding physicians indicated a preference for lecture-based CME activities even though interactive sessions were more effective in helping to retain information: more physicians provided correct answers when attending interactive sessions (39%) than when attending CME using procedural formats (27%) or lecture formats (24%).8 To enable real educational benefits and retention of medical knowledge, CME needs to be both clinically effective and engaging to GPs. Only a handful of studies published in recent years have investigated GPs’ learning preferences10–12 and little research has addressed this issue in Australia, where there are specific CME requirements and practice contexts. This research provides a recent snapshot of the preferences of practicing GPs in Australia for type, delivery mode and motivation for choice of CME activities.
NPS MedicineWise, an independent, not-for-profit and evidence-based organisation funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, conducts regular surveys of practising GPs to evaluate program effectiveness in improving the quality use of medicines and medical tests in Australia. For the 2012 National GP Survey, a stratified random sample of 2500 GPs was drawn from the Australasian Medical Publishing Company (AMPCo) database. The sample was stratified by state and by geographical location using the Rural Remote Metropolitan Area (RRMA) classification system.13 Sample size was equivalent to 10% of the total national GP workforce.14 Paper-based and web-based versions of the questionnaire were available. The entire questionnaire took about 15 minutes to complete and respondents could opt into a prize draw to win an educational resource.
In March 2012, paper-based questionnaires were mailed to participants, together with details of alternative online completion. GPs in the sample with an email address listed in the AMPCo database (n = 755) were also emailed a link to the online questionnaire. GPs were requested to respond within 7 weeks, during which non-responding GPs were sent two reminders, at 2-week intervals.
In a matrix survey question that permitted multiple selections, GPs selected their preferences for the type of CME activity and delivery mode. We also asked GPs to select three factors from a list of options that they believed to be most influential in their choice of CME activity. Options reflected the main CME types: meetings and workshops,2 audit and feedback,15 educational outreach visits,16 small group-based learning17,18 and self-education (print and digital).19 The survey was piloted with four GPs who had previously indicated willingness to assist NPS with program development. Data were analysed using IBM SPSS Version 20 (IBM, NY). Chi-square tests were performed to examine differences between GP characteristics and GP preferences.
Ethics approval for this project was granted by the RACGP National Research and Evaluation Ethics Committee (NREEC 11-12).
Of the 2500 questionnaires sent, 128 were undelivered, leaving 2372 eligible GPs. Of these, 714 responded to the survey (582 used the paper-based version and 132 used the online version). Thirty GPs did not identify themselves as currently practising, leaving 684 participants in the analysis. The response rate of 29% is comparable to other Australian GP surveys.20 Respondent demographic characteristics are shown in Table 1. The proportions of GPs surveyed from each state, geographical area, age group and gender were comparable to the distribution in the Australian GP workforce.14,21,22
Table 1. Demographics of survey respondents compared to the national GP workforce
|Survey respondents||National GP workforce14,21,22|
|Participated in NPS activity in past year
|Years in practice|
|1 GP (solo practice)
|NSW and ACT
|Remoteness area classification25|
|Remote and very remote area
GPs’ preferences for CME (which combine CME type and delivery mode) are shown in Table 2. The options selected by more than one-third of respondents are shown. Most GPs indicated a preference for learning in a group as opposed to learning on their own. Specifically, lecture-based CME was preferred most often; 83% of GPs preferred to learn in a group in a face-to-face format with an expert; 70% selected face-to-face group learning with a more interactive format; and 66% of GPs preferred an individual academic detailing style (one-to-one learning with an expert).
Table 2. GPs professional learning preferences
|Preferred learning option selected||All GPs|
|Age of GP (years)||Size of GP practice|
|P value||Solo, N=58|
|Learning in a group with an expert or speaker (face-to-face)
|Group discussion with other health professionals (face-to-face)
|One-to-one with an expert or representative (face-to-face)
|Clinical audit (online)
|Clinical case study (online)
|Clinical audit (paper)
With regard to online CME, 55% of GPs indicated a preference for online self-education. Older GPs were less likely to prefer online learning, particularly online self-education (Figure 1), as were GPs working in solo practices (Figure 2). Not surprisingly, respondents who chose to complete the survey online were also more likely to prefer online CME.
Figure 1. Percentage of GPs who prefer online self-education by age group
Figure 2. Percentage of GPs who prefer online self-education by practice size
Table 3 shows the frequency of factors influencing choice of CME activity. ‘Relevance to clinical practice’ was the most frequently selected reason for choosing a CME activity, whereas ‘interaction with other GPs or health professionals’ was least often selected.
Table 3. Factors influencing choice of CME activity
|Reason for choice of CME activity||Participants|
n = 684
|Relevance to area of practice
|Keeping up to date
|Convenient time, method or location
|Within my area of interest
|Leads to immediate changes in management of individual patients
|Minimal time or effort
|Preferred delivery format
|Interaction with other GPs or health professionals
In the present study, peer-group learning contexts were consistently preferred over other contexts (regardless of expert input) and clinical relevance was the most important motivator for choice of CME activity. Considering these results, it is plausible to suggest that GPs prefer group learning and believe this format is effective in providing relevant clinical learning. Although previous studies have shown group-based learning is less effective than individual academic detailing,3 other studies have shown interactive CME programs are effective in comparison to other CME types,2,4,5 as are CME programs with a discussion component.23 A limitation of this study is that this question could not be explored in greater depth as we did not specifically differentiate between interactive group learning with a speaker and non-interactive group learning with a speaker.
Nevertheless, many studies have found that GPs prefer face-to-face group learning because it allows a degree of personal interaction.12,24 Although few GPs explicitly identified ‘interaction’ as a driver for their choice of CPD activity, face-to-face group learning offers GPs an opportunity to network with other GPs and specialists, as well as to break from their normal routine, travel and seek relief from the everyday pressures of general practice.25 This may be another reason for prefering group learning formats irrespective of potential clinical effecitveness. Our finding that GPs in solo practices were least likely to prefer online learning may also support this notion. For GPs working in solo practices, online learning can be an isolating experience.
The present study also showed that more than half of the GPs surveyed have a preference for CME delivered online. While online learning can be isolating, it is generally more flexible than organised sessions and is likely to appeal to time-poor GPs.26,27 Previous research indicates online learning is convenient because it enables a level of control over how content is accessed, the depth of learning and time spent, while allowing learners to find information in a format that best suits their current needs.28 It is unlikely, however, that preferences for online CME are driven by time factors alone. In the present study, online CME was largely selected in addition to face-to-face group learning (not instead of) so it is likely that the flexibility provided by online CME is valued as an addition to the benefits of face-to-face group learning. This is likely to be an effective combination, as previous studies have shown online learning can be particularly effective when it follows live, face-to-face CME.7 Online learning was also particularly well regarded among younger GPs, which suggests that familiarity with online technologies resulting from previous educational experiences29 may be a driver of online CME preferences.
The present study indicates there is still a gap between GPs’ preferences and the clinical effectiveness of CME activities. Participating in a range of CME activities such as interactive group discussions, online self-education and one-to-one learning may provide GPs with a good balance and enable medical education that is both engaging and clinically effective.
- As we move into the digital era, conventional learning forms such as group face-to-face activities remain very popular and beneficial for both clinical learning and personal interaction with peers.
- When organising large-group CME activities, it is important for educators to use interactive styles (eg. discussions) to maximise clinical effectiveness and a combination of methods to engage GPs with varying preferences.
- Online learning is a more convenient CME option and provides value-added clinical learning, particularly when used in combination with face-to-face group learning.
- GPs are likely to benefit most from undertaking a range of CME activities, including less-preferred activities such as individual academic detailing and practice-based self-assessment.
Competing interests: None.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
- Harris JM Jr, Sklar BM, Amend RW, Novalis-Marine C. The growth, characteristics, and future of online CME. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2010;30:3–10.
- Forsetlund L, Bjorndal A, Rashidian A, et al. Continuing education meetings and workshops: effects on professional practice and health care outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2009;15.
- Simon SR, Majumdar SR, Prosser LA, et al. Group versus individual academic detailing to improve the use of antihypertensive medications in primary care: a cluster-randomized controlled trial. Am J Med 2005;118:521–28.
- Mansouri M, Lockyer J. A meta-analysis of continuing medical education effectiveness. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2007;27:6–15.
- Bloom BS. Effects of continuing medical education on improving physician clinical care and patient health: a review of systematic reviews. Int J Technol Assess Health Care 2005;21:380–85.
- Fordis M, King JE, Ballantyne CM, et al. Comparison of the instructional efficacy of internet-based cme with live interactive cme workshops: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 2005;294:1043–51.
- Shaw T, Long A, Chopra S, Kerfoot BP. Impact on clinical behavior of face-to-face continuing medical education blended with online spaced education: a randomized controlled trial. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2011;31:103–08.
- Stephens MB, McKenna M, Carrington K. Adult learning models for large-group continuing medical education activities. Fam Med 2011;43:334–37.
- Marinopoulos SS, Dorman T, Ratanawongsa N, et al. Effectiveness of continuing medical education. Evid Rep Technol Assess 2007;149:1–69.
- Vollmar HC, Rieger MA, Butzlaff ME, Ostermann T. General practitioners' preferences and use of educational media: a German perspective. BMC Health Servi Res 2009;9.
- Van den Berg L, De Villiers M. CPD: The learning preferences of general practitioners. S Afr Fam Pract 2003;45:10–12.
- Goodyear-Smith F, Whitehorn M, McCormick R. Experiences and preferences of general practitioners regarding continuing medical education: a qualitative study. N Z Med J 2003;116.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Rural, regional and remote health: A guide to remoteness classifications. Canberra: AIHW, 2004.
- Primary Health Care Research and Information Service. Key Division of General Practice Characteristics 2010–2011. PHCRIS, 2011.
- Ivers N, Jamtvedt G, Flottorp S, et al. Audit and feedback: effects on professional practice and healthcare outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;13.
- O'Brien MA, Rogers S, Jamtvedt G, et al. Educational outreach visits: effects on professional practice and health care outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007(4).
- Taylor C, Turnbull C, Sparrow N. Establishing the continuing professional development needs of general practitioners in their first five years after training. Educ Prim Care 2010;21:316–19.
- Zaher E, Ratnapalan S. Practice-based small group learning programs: Systematic review. Can Fam Physician 2012;58:637–42.
- Giguere A, Legare F, Grimshaw J, et al. Printed educational materials: effects on professional practice and healthcare outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;17(10).
- Bonevski B, Magin P, Horton G, Foster M, Girgis A. Response rates in GP surveys – trialling two recruitment strategies. Aust Fam Physician 2011;40:427–30.
- Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. General Practice Workforce Statistics 2010–2011, 2011.
- Health Workforce Australia. National Health Workforce Dataset (Medical Practitioners), 2010.
- Cook DA, Levinson AJ, Garside S, Dupras DM, Erwin PJ, Montori VM. Internet-based learning in the health professions: a meta-analysis. JAMA 2008;300:1181–96.
- Wong G, Greenhalgh T, Pawson R. Internet-based medical education: a realist review of what works, for whom and in what circumstances. BMC Med Educ 2010;10.
- Mamary E, Charles P. Promoting self-directed learning for continuing medical education. Med Teach 2003;25:188–90.
- Sargeant J, Curran V, Jarvis-Selinger S, et al. Interactive on-line continuing medical education: physicians' perceptions and experiences. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2004;24:227–36.
- Schoen MJ, Tipton EF, Houston TK, et al. Characteristics that predict physician participation in a Web-based CME activity: The MI-Plus study. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2009;29:246–53.
- Young KJ, Kim JJ, Yeung G, Sit C, Tobe SW. Physician preferences for accredited online continuing medical education. J Contin Educ Health Prof 2011;31:241–46.
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