Underlying much of the controversy surrounding Maintenance of Certification (MOC), is the question of how much, or even whether, the process as currently structured actually improves physician performance and/or patient outcomes.
On February 3, 2015, many physicians received a surprising email from Richard Baron, MD, MACP, president and chief executive officer of the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM). Referring to the board’s controversial maintenance of certification (MOC) program, Baron wrote, “ABIM clearly got it wrong. We launched programs that weren’t ready and we didn’t deliver a MOC program that physicians found meaningful…We got it wrong and sincerely apologize. We are sorry. ”
Baron’s email— which went to the approximately 200,000 internists and practitioners of 20 sub-specialties who have obtained their board certifications from the ABIM—followed by a few weeks (and many believe was at least partially in response to) the announcement a new organization, the National Board of Physicians and Surgeons (NBPAS), with the announced goal of giving doctors “an alternative route for continued board certification.” It is led by Paul Teirstein, MD, chief of cardiology at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, and an outspoken MOC critic.
While the controversy surrounding MOC remains far from settled, it seems clear that critics of the process and of ABIM have scored some significant gains, by forcing ABIM to review or scrap some elements of MOC, and by possibly opening new paths to maintaining certification.
Evolution of MOC requirements
The creation of NBPAS and the ABIM’s apology are but the latest developments in a long-simmering dispute over how doctors should best keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date—and prove that they are doing so. The controversy dates to the 1990s, when the ABIM instituted a policy whereby, beginning in 2000, physicians who certified after 1990 would have to recertify every 10 years. (Until then certification had been life-long.) The change was subsequently adopted by the other 24 boards comprising the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS).
The 10-year maintenance requirement produced some grumbling among doctors, but no organized resistance. That changed at the start of 2014 when ABIM announced that doctors would need to earn accreditation points on a continual basis over the 10 years between taking the recertifying examination. Moreover, doctors who had board certified before 1990 would be listed as “certified, not meeting MOC requirements” on the ABIM’s web site.
For Teirstein and many of the physicians boarded by the ABIM, these latest changes were the final straw. They were further incensed by what they regarded as the excessive growth of the nonprofit ABIM—whose budget exceeded $59 million—and the nearly $29 million spent on salaries, benefits and “other expenses” during the ABIM’s 2014 fiscal year. A few months later Teirstein launched an online petition opposing the MOC requirements that to-date has garnered more than 23,000 signatures, he says.
In addition, he says, “I began getting comments like, ‘it’s great we have all these signatures, but what do we have to show for it? Have they [the ABIM] actually changed anything?’ And they had not.”
The NBPAS alternative
Teirstein’s response was to found the NBPAS, a nonprofit organization with what he describes as “a much less expensive, much simpler approach to life-long learning.” In the news release announcing its formation, the organization says it is “committed to providing certification that ensures physician compliance with national standards and promotes lifelong learning.” Among the requirements for continued certification are that a candidate be previously certified by an ABMS-member board and have completed 50 hours of CME in the past two years.
Teirstein describes NBPAS as a “grass- roots organization,” one that is funded entirely by its members. Membership fees are $85 per year or $169 for two years, and cover all specialties and sub-specialties covered by the ABMS. “Right now we’ve got about a thousand members and we’re making ends meet doing that,” he says. Teirstein is taking no salary.
As of mid-April none of the nation’s hospitals were accepting NBPAS certification as a basis for admitting privileges, but Teirstein notes that the process usually involves approval from numerous boards and committees and thus will take some time. “I’m of the firm belief that the as long as the medical community is willing to stand up and say this is what they want we’ll figure out a way to make it happen, but it won’t be overnight,” he says.
Teirstein and other NBPAS board members say they support the notion of physicians keeping their knowledge and skills up to date, but think CME offers the best method for accomplishing that. Teirstein notes that CME courses must be accredited by the American Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to count towards license renewal. “We’ve decided the best compromise is where you can have lifelong learning which doctors don’t consider onerous,” he says. “The doctors can choose which offerings to attend. They’re not going to pay and take time to go to something that’s not relevant.”
‘It’s not good learning’
Harry Sarles, MD, FACG, an NBPAS board member and past president of the American College of Gastroenterology objects to what he calls the “esoterica” on the certification examinations. “It’s not good learning. It’s learning for the test,” he says.
“ABIM should not be allowed to set the bar, make the rules, and then provide all the CME that can only be accepted to meet their rules,” he adds. “I’m answering to my hospital, my state, my patients, the health plans, in terms of my quality being measured and monitored. And now ABIM steps in and says you should be doing something for us too. I felt like I was in the middle of a shakedown.”
“When I took my certification I felt proud and driven to continuously improve myself,,” he says. “But everything ABIM has instituted since then, to my way of thinking, has really been about themselves and not what’s best for physicians.”
Sarles endorses the idea of physicians demonstrating quality and a commitment to ongoing education, but wants to see “multiple pathways” for doing so. “I’m all for competition, because it will make us all better,” he says. “If we only had one kind of car to buy it would probably be a crappy car. Whatever your criteria are, competition is very healthy and I believe in it.”
The ABIM response
ABIM’s February 3 statement, while not directly acknowledging NBPAS, did appear to address some of its complaints and those of others who have been critical of the MOC process. It said that the board will:
In addition, according to the statement, “ABIM will work with medical societies and directly with diplomates to seek input regarding the MOC program” via meetings, webinars, forums, and other venues. “We are embarked on a whole new way of doing business and much more engagement with our community,” Baron said in a phone interview with Medical Economics.
As evidence, he cites implementation of “a sub-specialty board structure that involves depth in each of the disciplines in internal medicine,” and that includes physicians in community practice as well as patients and other public stakeholders.
“Those groups have been reaching out to colleagues and members of their societies,” Baron says. “And what we’re hearing is that lots of the activities we had either as board products or expectations maybe are being done by other people in the [healthcare] delivery system better than we’re doing them. And in that case we want to learn more about those and figure out how to give people credit for the work that they’re doing during their day jobs and avoid redundancy and wasting members’ time.”
Responding to the complaint that MOC tests doctors on knowledge and skills they don’t encounter in their practice, Baron says he took the exam a year ago and acknowledges that it included topics he’d not seen in his general internist/geriatrics practice. On the other hand, he says, “I think all of us in practice confront that there’s a difference between what we use every day and what we might need to use some time.”
Baron recalls joining the ABIM’s test-writing committee in the summer of 2001 and being surprised to find the test included a question on anthrax. But several months later it was a board-certified internist in Miami, Florida (Larry Bush, MD) who first identified anthrax as the mysterious substance being sent through the mail that was sickening—and in the case of Bush’s patient, killing—recipients was anthrax.
”That’s a doctor who had a piece of knowledge that he didn’t use every day, but fact that he had it made a huge difference for a patient,” Baron says. (Bush subsequently coauthored an article about the incident in The New England Journal of Medicine.)
Regarding the fees associated with MOC, Baron says, “Nobody likes to write checks, and when I was in practice there were a lot of things I wished I didn’t have to pay for. But I want to acknowledge that it’s really hard for doctors in practice now and every check is a painful check. We are looking at ways to reduce the cost.”
As evidence, he points to the February 3 announcement regarding enrollment fees. “We are taking time to listening to physician feedback about all aspects of our program before announcing any additional changes,” he says.
“We know that doctors need to experience more value in the program, and the areas we pulled back on were those that doctors were in effect saying, ‘I’m not getting much out of this,’” he says.
What do the data show?
Underlying much of the controversy surrounding MOC is the question of how much—or even whether—the process as currently structured actually improves physician performance and/or patient outcomes. A great many internists clearly believe it does not, according to a study published in the January 2015 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.
The authors assembled a focus group consisting of 50 board-certified primary care and subspecialist internal medicine and family medicine physicians in an academic medical center and community sites. They found that “at present, MOC is perceived by physicians as an inefficient and logistically difficult activity for learning or assessment, often irrelevant to practice, and of little benefit to physicians, patients, or society.”
Data on the effectiveness of certification since the institution of time limitations is sparse, consisting largely of a handful of studies published over the past 15 years in Academic Medicine, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and JAMA, among others. And while MOC supporters say the studies support MOC’s effectiveness, in a debate earlier this year with Baron and Lois M. Nora, president and chief executive officer of the ABMS, Teirstein maintained that the studies’ results are, at best, ambiguous.
He cited, for example, the results of a 2014 investigation published in JAMA comparing clinical outcomes among patients at four Veterans Administration hospitals treated by internists with time-limited and time-unlimited certifications (i.e. those who were grandfathered out of the ABIM’s 10-year certification requirements and those who were not.) The authors found “no significant differences” between the two groups on 10 primary care performance measures.
“If you say we have data that supports our MOC process, you’d better have the data,” Teirstein said in his interview with Medical Economics. “And if you look at the papers they cite, they’re very unconvincing.”
Baron acknowledges that the evidence in support of MOC “could be stronger,” but also notes “at least one of the studies he (Teirstein) criticized met rigorous methodological standards.”
“I don’t think it’s unusual to have good faith people arguing about whether the evidence shows ‘x’ or ‘y,” Baron says. “Every clinician operates all the time in an environment where the patient didn’t walk out of an article in a journal. You have to navigate between what you know you know and how close the patient before you gets to that.”
Teirstein says NBPAS has no plans to try and link ongoing education and training to quality and patient outcomes. “I just don’t think you can measure this adequately,” he says. “Would randomizing really work? A doctor might be more inspired to do a good job because he wants to prove you don’t have to do this [maintain certification.] It’s just not the kind of thing that lends itself to scientific study.”
Looking ahead, Teirstein envisions the NBPAS playing a watchdog role for the ABMS and its member boards, in addition to providing certification. “We’ll be keeping an eye on things and making sure everyone knows physicians are not just going to take whatever they’re given. We’re going to react and try to make our voices heard.”
Source: American Board of Internal Medicine
Source: National Board of Physicians and Surgeons