The joke raises a question: Is there any way to know if your doctor is staying current with today’s medical knowledge or is even certified in his or her field of practice? The answer lies with the efforts of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). The ABMS has been certifying doctors for decades. However the requirements for maintaining one’s certification have changed over the past 25 years. After recertifying in Internal Medicine this past fall, I thought it might be helpful to devote a blog to the topic of board certification.
What is the American Board of Medical Specialties?
The ABMS is a not-for-profit organization that develops and implements certification programs for 24 “Member Boards” in an effort to ensure certain standards of care in physicians. The result is that physicians who become certified and participate in the “Maintenance of Certification” or MOC program provide higher quality care than their non-certified counterparts. All physicians are required to be licensed to practice medicine even though obtaining “board certification” is not required. Obtaining Board Certification is voluntary. The program is becoming more complex, and because of the complexity, many physicians are letting their certifications lapse.
What is the initial certification process?
There are several steps involved in the initial certification process. One must obtain an undergraduate degree from a college or university (usually 4 years), obtain a medical degree (another 4 years), finish an accredited residency program (3-5 more years), obtain an unrestricted medical license and pass an examination administered by the respective ABMS Member Board. After initial certification, physicians can then elect to maintain their certification by participating in their MOC program.
What’s in a name?
For example, I am an Allergist. I have met all the requirements and passed the tests to be certified by the American Board of Allergy and Immunology (ABAI). I am on a time-limited certification with my current certification running from 2005-2015. I am currently “participating” in the ABAI MOC program. I’m also an Internist. I have been certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM). My ABIM certification is also time limited and initially ran from 2002 to 2012. I recertified last year and my new certificate runs through 2022. I am currently “participating” in the ABIM MOC program. It’s not uncommon for a specialist to only recertify in their specialty, however I wanted to maintain my ABIM certification as well.
What is the difference between a certification that is time limited versus unlimited?
Since 1990 most board certifications are time limited to 10 years. Meaning every 10 years, a physician has to verify he or she is up-to-date in that respective field. If your physician is over the age of 50 and finished medical school prior to 1990, they may be practicing on a “time-unlimited” certification. That doesn’t mean they are a bad doctor, it only means they have never been forced to comprehensively retest their knowledge.
Here is a quote from a recent ABIM mailer: “Imagine being on a cross-country flight and learning that your pilot has had no new training since first earning his wings 15 years ago. The plane he’s flying is quite different from the one he trained on. How would you feel?”
So if you want to ensure your “medical pilot” is up-to-date in their training, check to see if they are certified and that they are maintaining those certifications.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to create a doctor-patient relationship with any reader. If you need personalized medical advice, contact your primary care physician or other physician in your community.