Learning needs assessment has a fundamental role in education and training, but care is needed to prevent it becoming a straitjacket It might seem self evident that the need to learn should underpin any educational system. Indeed, the literature suggests that, at least in relation to continuing professional development, learning is more likely to lead to change in practice when needs assessment has been conducted, the education is linked to practice, personal incentive drives the educational effort, and there is some reinforcement of the learning.1 Learning needs assessment is thus crucial in the educational process, but perhaps more of this already occurs in medical education than we suspect. The key lesson might be for those who design new systems of education and training: for example, the postgraduate education allowance system in general practice was felt to fail the profession because it did not include needs assessment and so led to ad hoc education to fulfil the time requirements of the system rather than the needs of individual doctors or the profession as a whole. On the other hand, basing learning in a profession entirely on the assessment of needs is a dangerous and limiting tactic. So a balance must be struck.