The Royal Colleges and their Faculties have moved continuing professional development up the agenda of doctors in the UK. The low educational value and failure to change professional practice of much continuing medical education has led to criticism of its emphasis on formal, didactic teaching and academic knowledge. The ubiquitous scientific or technical bias in medical education makes questionable assumptions about the nature of professional knowledge, how professionals learn, and the linkage of theory and practice in professional work. Given its narrow conception of professional knowledge, it is hardly surprising that the effectiveness of continuing medical education has proven difficult to evaluate. These points of criticism suggest that a more systematic and coherent approach to continuing education is required. The adoption of the concept of continuing professional development, which draws on learning by reflective practice, marks an important step in this direction. Continuing professional development emphasises self-directed learning, professional self-awareness, learning developed in context, multidisciplinary and multilevel collaboration, the learning needs of individuals and their organisations, and an inquiry-based concept of professionalism. It also involves a widening of accountability to patients, the community, managers and policymakers, and a form of evaluation which is internal, participatory and collaborative rather than external and scientific in character.