CNN has reported doctors taking the examinations required for board certification in their specialties have been cheating on those tests for years. If they’re right about what constitutes cheating, I’m one of those doctors.
Every medical specialty is overseen by a board of doctors prominent in that field. This board administers examinations – passage of which supposedly guarantees a doctor’s competence.
The CNN report deals primarily with radiologists and the American Board of Radiology, but the criticisms apply equally to my specialty – pathology. I have no reason to think other medical specialties behave differently.
At issue are “recalls” – lists of questions compiled from memory by doctors who take the test and then made available to doctors who take the test later.
CNN was able to obtain “at least 15 years’ worth of test questions and answers” from Internet sources. According to their report, “residents and practicing radiologists confirmed that recalls have been widely used in most, if not all, radiology programs for more than a decade.”
Dr. Gary Becker, executive director of the American Board of Radiology, told CNN he was outraged: “Accumulating and studying from lists of questions on prior examinations ... is inappropriate, unnecessary, intolerable and illegal.”
Gimme a break.
I don’t believe any member of any specialty board is unaware of recalls. And I’ll bet most and probably all members of those boards used recalls themselves when they studied for their own board examinations.
I think most of those quoted were too scared of CNN to admit they used recalls or to explain what recalls are used for.
Medical boards are multiday exams taken after close to a decade of training. Every disease, test or procedure a doctor practicing in a given field might be called upon to recognize or interpret or perform is fair game. Those tests are hard. I’ve heard the first-try failure rate is 30 to 50 percent.
Dr. Becker says about half the questions on any given year’s examination had been asked before – a figure typical of other specialties. The subject matter is still too immense to be mastered by last-minute cramming.
The CNN article reads as if doctors pass by memorizing questions and answers. Baloney.
In 1985, I had a stack of recalls several inches thick. I got most of them from my mentors, who’d used them when they took the boards. There’s no guarantee the questions were accurately remembered. I know some of the answers were wrong because I looked them up. Everybody knows that. Nobody expects to pass by memorizing questions.
Recall questions are a study guide: How are questions formatted? What sorts of esoteric questions are repeatedly asked? Given the universe of information to be covered, where should I concentrate?
I think that’s perfectly fair.
The goal of the boards is to ensure doctors practicing a given specialty know what they need to know to do a good job.
If they learn some of that material by reading old test questions and looking up answers, so what?
email@example.com. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.