Continuous certification – Not just one more hoop to jump through


Maintenance of Certification (MOC) is an American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) requirement for their 24 member boards. The MOC process has received much criticism, especially in recent years. To date, a 5-hour exam at a secure testing center every 10 years covering comprehensive vascular surgery knowledge has been the routine. This requirement had the surgeon take off a day from work for the exam, in addition to the time it took to prepare. Burnout, at least in part, is related to the sheer volume of busywork not directly relevant to being a practicing surgeon.

Dr. Vivian Gahtan

The American Board of Surgery is sensitive to both the relevance of MOC and needs of the diplomate, and is striving to make appropriate changes. Diplomates were surveyed regarding MOC and the accompanying exam in both 2016 and 2017. Using this input, the development of the 10-year exam format was studied carefully by the board directors and executive staff, all of whom are active in the clinical practice of surgery, and a new process now known as Continuous Certification was introduced. The intent of the new Continuous Certification Assessment (to replace the every-10-year MOC exam) is to be an activity that is convenient, timely, and more reflective of the surgeon’s daily practice. The assessment is to be done every 2 years and is online, open book, and taken at a place of the examinee’s choosing, such as the home or in the office. Another key feature of the continuous certification process is that the total number of CME required is decreased and the self-assessment requirement is eliminated.

In November 2018, I took the first General Surgery Continuous Certification Assessment. There was approximately a 2-month window to register, and online registration was simple, taking only about 15 minutes to complete. All the references were listed on the ABS website and the vast majority were open access and directly linked to the article. For those articles that were not open access, there was a link to the PubMed abstract. I downloaded all of the articles (actually this part my assistant did) and requested five articles from the library. I did not review the articles in advance, but used them when going sequentially through the assessment questions. Depending on the article, I read it or looked up the specific aspect I was looking for. I worked on the test three different times – at the airport during a long layover, at home, and at my office. After answering each question, I received feedback on what was the correct answer and a one-paragraph explanation which I read completely. After completing all 40 questions, each question for which I had an incorrect answer (not more than one or two of course, Ha!) was shown again with the opportunity to answer the question. The total time took me was about 4.5 hours. All in all, it was a good experience, and I learned something.

The general surgery assessment is modular. Twenty questions (half) were core surgery topics, and the other twenty questions came from one of four specialty modules of the examinee’s choice – breast, abdomen, alimentary tract, or comprehensive general surgery. I took the core and the abdomen modules. The core topics were, for the most part, areas that a surgeon who does patient care would find relevant (for example, perioperative management of a patient on corticosteroids, postoperative delirium, and prophylaxis for venous thromboembolism).

A couple of other details should be mentioned about this new process. From the time of initiation of the assessment, there are 2 weeks allocated for completion. One needs 80% correct to pass. If the examinee receives less than 80% but higher than 40% on the first assessment attempt, he/she will have a second attempt to answer the questions that were incorrect on the first try. If a cumulative score of less than 80% is achieved after the second attempt, a grace year will be provided, which is an extension of certification for 1 year with the opportunity to take the next year’s assessment. If after the grace year (four attempts) the diplomate is unsuccessful, then a secure exam is required to regain certification.

Overall, there has been much positive feedback. Of the 2,164 diplomates taking the Continuous Certification Assessment, only 21 were unsuccessful. Therefore, the pass rate was over 99% for the inaugural year. The average examinee took just over 3 hours to complete the assessment.

In 2018, the 10-year recertification examination in vascular surgery with 10 years of credit was given for the last time. The Vascular Surgery Continuous Certification Assessment is in preparation now and will roll out in the fall of 2019. It will follow a format similar to general surgery with 40 questions on a number of topics in vascular surgery. However, the vascular surgery assessment will not be modular. This activity will incorporate general knowledge (for example, from consensus guidelines), as well as late breaking trials. So far, this process looks to be a better one, as well as more efficient and relevant for the busy surgeon.

Dr. Gahtan is professor and chief, division of vascular surgery and endovascular services, State University of New York Upstate Medical University, Syracuse.


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