This family physician is deeply disappointed in maintenance of certification

An open letter to the American Board of Family Medicine (ABFM):

I recently chose to sit for my sixth (and I hope final) family practice maintenance of certification (MOC) examination, having now practiced as a board certified family physician for the past 34 years and intending to work a few more years. I want to share my experience taking this examination your organization prepares, promotes and uses at a high cost to determine which physicians meet the standards of family medicine, as stated on your website:

Family medicine is the medical specialty that provides continuing, comprehensive health care for the individual and family. It is a specialty in breadth that integrates the biological, clinical and behavioral sciences. The scope of family medicine encompasses all ages, both sexes, each organ system, and every disease entity. When you or a family member needs health care or medical treatment, you want a highly qualified doctor dedicated to providing outstanding care. When you choose a doctor who is board-certified, you can be confident he or she meets nationally recognized standards for education, knowledge, experience, and skills to provide high-quality care in a specific medical specialty.

After my experience today, I am deeply disappointed in your vision of what a “highly qualified” board-certified family physician needs to demonstrate on a MOC examination to meet “nationally recognized standards.”

As a medical student, I was inspired by the physicians who were our teachers and mentors in the art and science of caring not just for the individual but their family system as well. I then had the privilege of family practice residency training at one of the most progressive health maintenance organizations in the country (Group Health Cooperative in Seattle) where my teachers were not only excellent family physicians who were deeply involved with training residents but actively involved in caring for their own patients as well. In addition, one of my best teachers at Group Health was a full-time non-physician behavioral health specialist who taught us how to understand a patient’s experience of their illness and how an excellent family doc makes a difference in a patient’s sense of well-being.

As a result of those role models in my training and education, I have devoted my four-decade career to family medicine in a variety of primary care roles: as a physician with a full spectrum practice in the inner city; as a director of a family planning clinic as well as a community health center for indigent and homeless patients; as an occupational health clinician for industry, as a community inpatient behavioral health and “detox” doctor for our local hospital; as a forensic examiner for hundreds of child sexual abuse evaluations; as a college health physician; and as an administrator. I have had the privilege to work with an immense variety of patients in diverse clinical settings, and only family medicine specialty training could have prepared me for that.

I believe in my specialty and the incredible versatility it offers to the physicians who choose it and to the patients who benefit from care by clinicians who are trained to work with the whole person, not just one aspect of their health.

I believe in those who practice a “womb-to-tomb” approach in providing continuity of care for an individual throughout their life cycle.

I believe in the opportunities within my specialty for some clinicians to concentrate only on certain aspects of patient care (geriatric care, palliative/hospice care, emergency medicine, hospitalist care, adolescent medicine, sports medicine, addiction care, behavioral health, etc.)

I no longer believe, based on the contents of the MOC examination, the American Board of Family Medicine is living up to its commitment to its paying physician constituents. Board Certification is no longer an “option” for us but an economic necessity for our ongoing professional employment, credentialing and privileging.

First, I knew my preparation for this exam would need to be more rigorous than for previous exams as my current practice exclusively manages patients’ behavioral health issues given the current lack of psychiatric consultant availability or affordability. As family physicians often do, we must step up and become the specialist our patients need when no other specialist is available. I no longer see the full spectrum of life cycle medical issues, so the many hours of review I did for the exam was necessary, extensive and time-consuming, even though I will not ever practice full spectrum family medicine again.

Second, the experience of taking the examination at a regional “testing center” goes beyond standard airport security humiliation like having my eye glasses inspected in case they contained a camera, my wedding ring looked at, my pockets turned inside out, my sleeves pulled up and my ankles and socks uncovered. I was also “wanded” for metal hidden on my body, my wrist watch locked up with my purse and cell phone — this happened not just once but after every break, even to go to the bathroom.

Third, the exam itself in no way measured the diversity of skills required of an excellent family physician. Over three hundred multiple choice questions each providing a few data and clinical points about a particular patient and based on that limited information, the test taker is asked to choose the “best” evidence-based treatment option or “most likely” diagnosis. Absent are the nuances of patient demeanor in the exam room or how they respond on history-taking, the subtleties of a hands-on physical assessment. No information was provided about whether this particular patient has a family involved in their care, or what finances they have to afford the “best” treatment option when insurance won’t cover, or their willingness to comply with what is recommended. A phone app could easily answer these exam questions with a search that takes less than twenty seconds, yet our cell phones were taken away and locked up. Your test content implies a family physician has to know all the details, the numbers and the drug interactions committed to memory without the benefit of the technology tools we, along with many of our patients, use every day.

An excellent family physician can easily look up the “guidelines” and the “evidence based treatment” for a medical diagnosis, but beyond that must know how best to work with a particular patient given all the variables in their life impacting their health and well-being.

Less than 5 percent of the exam questions dealt with any behavioral health issues when mental health concerns can be more than 50 percent of the issues brought to us in any given appointment. There was minimal mention about the dynamics of family support, or insurance/financial stressors or relationship conflicts or the many social justice issues impacting patient health. There were no questions involving LGBTQ patients. There were few questions about the impact of the current epidemic of substance abuse and addiction contributing to our patients’ premature deaths. There was nothing that dealt with how to encourage and inspire patient compliance with our recommendations. There were no questions dealing with ethical decision making, or how to keep the computer screen from coming between the clinician and the patient or how to maintain humanity in medical practice.

Fourth, I left that examination feeling very discouraged that the (all younger) family physicians who sat with me in that testing center are facing future years of this kind of superficial yet onerous assessment of their skills. They are likely reluctant to “rock the boat” in questioning how our specialty has devolved to this, but I am not. I want to see this improve within my professional lifetime.

If the every ten-year high-stakes MOC examination were a surgery, an imaging study or a new medication, it would never pass muster for the ABFM standard of “best practice” and “evidence-based.” That seems ironic for an exam that is designed specifically to measure physicians’ abilities to memorize and recall guidelines, best practices and what is recommended and what is not in certain clinical situations. Over my 30+ years of family medicine, many accepted and “evidence-based” medical practices have now been found to be ineffective, or at worse, harmful. So we stop doing them and stop recommending them.

Somehow the high stakes MOC exam survives without evidence of benefit, and one could argue causes significant harm including the immense cost in money, time and aggravation. I am not advocating for ceasing MOC, but want to see ABFM move on from the once a decade exam to a more frequent open book assessment — help us physicians learn more effectively and more eagerly.

I have worked at a university for three decades and understand the style of learning that results in information “sticking” versus that which is memorized and quickly forgotten, especially when it is not used on a regular basis. As Dr. Robert Centor has cogently commented about the MOC process, there is a difference between “formative” assessment of knowledge which is an ongoing monitoring of knowledge acquisition reflecting a learner’s strengths and weaknesses versus a “summative” assessment which is the high stakes end of the semester (or decade) examination. We want our physicians to be enthusiastic ongoing learners with an incentive to keep up on new medical innovation and knowledge. To encourage that we need to launch frequent mandatory open book assessments of knowledge before more and more physicians drop out of the MOC process (and their practices) altogether.

I’m asking the ABFM and its board members not to be tone deaf to the voices of physicians who are telling you “the emperor has no clothes.” We all have tried for decades to be good board-certified citizens pretending that all is right and well with the process we are subjected to.

I’m also asking the ABFM and its board members to reexamine the cost and need for security measures in a strip mall testing center setting which is the equivalent of MRI scanning 10,000 patients to find the one cancer — this would never be an acceptable option on one of your exam questions. Treat us as the professionals we are.

I know why I became a family physician over thirty years ago, and it wasn’t to treat patients as demographic data points whose health parameters and decisions must meet “evidence-based outcome measures” so health care entities can be fully reimbursed for the work we do with them.

And so I ask you, on behalf of family physicians who don’t speak up, and on behalf of our patients:

With your organization leading the way, let’s put the “family” back in family medicine.

Let’s put the doctor/patient relationship back in the forefront of the care we provide for people.

And let’s stop meaningless multiple choice high stakes MOC examinations in strip mall testing centers and look at what really matters in maintenance of certification for family physicians.


Emily Gibson, MD


Emily Gibson is a family physician who blogs at Barnstorming.

Image credit:

View 10 Comments >

Most Popular

Join 137,000+ subscribers

Get the best of KevinMD in your inbox

Sign me up! It's free. 
✓ Join 137,000+ subscribers 
✓ Get KevinMD's 5 most popular stories
Subscribe. It's free.