Declining board exam pass rates: Blame millennial doctors?

An interesting conversation recently took place among residency program directors in my field of internal medicine.

At issue was the declining pass rate of first-time test takers of the ABIM Certification Exam.

It’s a mouthful to say, but the ABIM exam is the ultimate accolade for internists. One is only eligible to take the exam after having successfully completed a three-year residency training period (the part that includes “internship,” right after medical school).

An easy analogy is to say that the board exam is for a doctor what the bar exam is for a lawyer. The difference is that a doctor can still practice if he does not pass — they might be excluded from certain jobs or hospital staffs, but certification, while important, is a bit of gilding the lily. (Licensure to practice comes from a different set of exams.)

There’s no doubt it’s a hard test. I was tremendously relieved to have passed it on my first try. Over the last few years, the pass rate for first time takers has fallen from ~90% to a low of 84%.

It may not seem significant, but for 7300 annual test takers, the difference in pass rates affects about 365 people — or one additional non-passing doctor for every day of the year.

In any event, we program directors have taken note. And the falling pass rate has raised questions:

  • Has the test increased in difficulty? No, says the ABIM.
  • Are the study habits of millennials not up to the level of baby boomers and Gen X’ers? Now you may be on to something.

One concern that has a ring of truth to it is that young doctors have become great “looker-uppers,” and have lost the sense of what it’s like to actually read and study medicine. While doctors enter the profession with a commitment to lifelong learning, some of us fear that the young folk only go far enough to commit to lifelong Googling.

Another key point. In today’s era of restricted work hours, something has to give. Too often, when residents must complete the same amount of work in a limited amount of time, what’s sacrificed is the didactic portion of the education: the stuff we do by running through case after case, discussing subtleties and action plans. When time is limited, the work’s simply gotta get done.

There’s even a term that describes this phenomenon: work compression.

John Schumann is an internal medicine physician who blogs at GlassHospital.

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