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.”