A taste of things to come

Tasters can provide a valuable insight into medical specialties for junior doctors.

WITH more than 60 medical specialties to choose from in the UK, it’s no wonder foundation doctors have trouble deciding which career path to follow.

The Foundation Programme lets trainees experience around six specialties but they are required to make that all-important decision about applying for a specialty in the early part of FY2. And with so many fields left unexplored, a well-run taster session could form a key part of that decision-making process. These placements offer FY1 and FY2 trainees the chance to spend two to five days exploring a specialty, to find out what it’s like to work in that field. They can help a trainee decide which specialty is right – or wrong – for them by allowing them to see senior clinicians and other key workers in action.

The UK Foundation Programme Office, which oversees foundation training for doctors, currently has no official data showing exactly how many trainees take part in tasters. At present, the organisation of tasters varies greatly between deaneries with some foundation schools investing more time in the sessions than others. Anecdotal evidence suggests tasters are popular and the UKFPO is supporting the development of high quality tasters in every foundation school area and encouraging the creation of a local register of tasters that are available to all foundation trainees.

Those looking to take part can spend up to five days in a taster as they consist of either a single five day experience in one specialty or shorter periods of time in two or even three specialties. Time off the wards is usually taken as study leave, but this may be tricky to negotiate for those in busy hospitals and requires advance planning and negotiation with colleagues. Tasters are usually undertaken in the junior doctor’s own hospital which means the experience doesn’t require study leave funding. It is rare for a junior doctor to go on a taster that isn’t conducted by their own employer – i.e. outside their deanery – due to the need for checks, issues over employment status and financial constraints. FY1s and FY2s are not usually expected to carry out their normal duties during a taster as the emphasis is firmly on learning what a career in that specialty will entail, from skills and attitudes to lifestyle and work-life balance. But occasionally a trainee will be required to contribute to their usual on-call rota during a taster. Tasters should involve one-to-one time with senior clinicians and current trainees who can speak about their experiences in the specialty. They should be well planned out with activities and contacts defined for each day.

Broadly speaking, there should be minimal difficulty in accessing tasters as sessions are usually organised in a way that accommodates the majority of trainees. That said, competition and demand can be higher for some specialties and a place on a taster is not always guaranteed. Trainees should speak to their local foundation programme director in the first instance for more information. Ideally, planning for a taster should start during FY1 with a view to taking part in the taster in the early stages of FY2.

Foundation trainees sometimes complain that the initiation and organisation of tasters is left to them, with little external support. This effort may repeat that of a previous trainee to arrange the taster. They can also report a lack of guidance for the trainee or the trainer on content or outcome and the results are not always a high quality experience.

Dr Melanie Jones, Special Advisor in Careers for the UKFPO, said: “Tasters are a great opportunity to explore something you have not been able to do during the foundation programme. They can help clarify your career thinking but they are an optional extra and might not appeal to everyone. UKFPO have recently issued guidance on tasters for trainees and their supervisors which is available on the UKFPO website.”

An increasing number of junior doctors seem to be using tasters as a means of showing their commitment to a given specialty – an essential part of specialty applications – as well as to help them make up their mind about that field of medicine. But whatever they are used for, tasters can prove an invaluable career tool for junior doctors.

For more information on tasters visit the UKFPO website

Joanne Curran is associate editor of FYi