There are few things that psychiatrists have come to despise more than the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program. It has become a professional boondoggle for psychiatric practitioners.
The program needs an overhaul and simplification. There are better, more efficient, cost-effective ways to ensure psychiatric physicians’ ongoing clinical competence after they complete their residency training. Technological advances can also facilitate a more valid assessment of competence without having to jump through more and more hoops between recertifications every 10 years.
I passed the boards long before the MOC was created. For 20 years, I also served as a senior examiner for the oral boards, where clinical competency was rigorously assessed by direct observations of psychiatrists examining and establishing rapport with patients and formulating the data into a differential diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis. It is noteworthy that psychiatrists who sat for the oral boards had already passed a written exam that tested their cognitive knowledge. Yet approximately one-third of the candidates failed the live oral exam, which clearly implies that passing a written exam is necessary but not sufficient to establish clinical competence, which is the primary purpose of board certification. It was an unfortunate decision to discontinue the face-to-face oral board exam, which is so vital for psychiatry, and to replace it with a written exam and a barrage of time-consuming activities to document lifelong learning and self-assessment, but not genuine clinical competence. The MOC has been MOCkingly referred to as a major pain in the neck for practically all psychiatrists who were not grandfathered with lifetime certification, as was the case in the first 60 years of the ABPN.
Benefits of the patient-based oral exam
Let’s face it: Passing a patient-based oral exam was the ideal mechanism to establish that a psychiatric physician deserved to be a diplomate of the ABPN. During the oral exam, the candidate’s skills were observed from the minute he/she met the patient. The candidate was then observed as he/she systematically explored a wide range of past and current psychiatric symptoms; reviewed the patient’s developmental, medical, family, and social histories; and conducted a competent mental status exam while demonstrating an empathic stance, responding to the patient’s often subtle verbal and nonverbal cues, establishing rapport, and providing psychoeducation before concluding the interview. All these essential components of a psychiatric exam were observed in a compact 30-minute tour de force of clinical skills, communication, and cognitive acumen. This was followed by another 30 minutes of organizing and presenting the clinical data to 2 or 3 colleagues/examiners, in a coherent fashion, connecting all the dots, formulating the case, presenting a meaningful differential diagnosis, and suggesting a rational array of potential treatment options across the biopsychosocial continuum. To top it off, the candidate had to respond effectively, in an evidence-based manner, to a series of questions related to the disease state, its treatment, adverse effects, and prognosis.
It was a joy to watch many colleagues navigate this clinical examination with skill and competence, without crumbling under the pressure of the examiners’ scrutiny. There were some who passed with flying colors, and others who passed despite having a forgivable minor gap here and there because of their overall strong performance. Finally, there were those who stumbled in several components across data collection, doctor–patient interactions, synthesis of the clinical findings, or treatment recommendations. These candidates inevitably received a failing grade by a consensus of 3 examiners. That they failed to demonstrate clinical competence despite having passed the required written exams a year earlier proved that the true competency of a psychiatrist cannot be judged solely by passing a written test but requires a clinical examination of a live patient.
The oral exams represented an unimpeachable evaluation of clinical competence. The examiners often spoke of how they would feel confident and comfortable with referring a family member to those who successfully passed this rigorous, authentic exam on real patients. It was justifiable to give lifetime certification to those who passed the oral exam. Those permanently certified psychiatrists maintained their lifelong learning by having an unrestricted state medical license, which is contingent on acquiring 50 category 1 continuing medical education (CME) credits annually. Why not restore lifelong certification for those who pass both a written and oral exam, as long as they maintain a valid medical license?
According to the ABPN 2019 Annual Report,1 31,514 psychiatrists have received lifetime certification, of whom an estimated 9,547 were still clinically active in 2019. This is the “grandfathered” cohort of psychiatrists to which I belong. I was tested on neurologic patients, not just psychiatric patients, a tribute to the strong bridge that existed between these sister brain specialties. As of 2019, of the 33,277 psychiatrists who received a time-limited certification, 29,343 were still clinically active, an attrition rate of 12% over the past 25 years. This includes psychiatrists who found the MOC too onerous to complete, or are in private practice where MOC is not a vital requirement. However, these days most psychiatrists are obligated to be recertified because so many entities require it. This includes hiring institutions, government agencies (Medicare/Medicaid), health insurance companies, hospital medical staff for privileging and credentialing, and various regulatory boards, such as The Joint Commission, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, and academic medical centers. Because most psychiatrists are involved with at least one of these entities, 29,343 have no choice but to perform all the requirements of the MOC, with its countless hours, numerous documentations, and many fees, to remain certified by the ABPN. Notably absent is an alternative mechanism for a certification process that is widely accepted by all agencies and institutions. Psychiatrists are actively seeking alternatives.
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