The New Core Exam- An Associate Program Director’s Lament
What are the essential ingredients of a successful radiologist? – the art of oral and written communication, being able to distinguish one study from another, the ability to successfully analyze the findings, the masterful arrival at a reasonable differential diagnosis, and the creation of insightful management recommendations.
The oral boards enabled residents for years to learn these essential skills of a good radiologist. As much as we had heard horror stories of the trials and tribulations of the test takers in Louisville, Kentucky, it lit a fire under all of us. By the end of our fourth year and completion of our oral board at the last month of residency, all of us were artful in the realm of oral and written communications and powerhouses of essential radiological knowledge. We were immediately able to practice competently as radiologists on day one after completing our radiology residencies. This bygone era is no more…
Instead, what does the new core examination teach radiology residents? It forces residents to learn some radiological knowledge. But, more importantly it reinforces the strategies of multiple choice and matching format questions. As a radiologist, I never have options a,b,c,d, or e on a piece of paper or a computer screen. I need to have a baseline sum of knowledge to make my own assessments. On occasion, I will google a question. But, the only reason I know what question to ask is: I know the fundamentals of radiology. The fundamentals are no longer emphasized.
The style of a test can be just as important as the content because it reinforces the process of learning and communication. Now, instead of concentrating on practicing the most common methods of disseminating information to others, radiology residents are now concentrating on methods that are never used by radiologists in practice. Think about it… A good oral test that actually forced residents to study the essence of radiology has been converted to an examination that reinforces the learning of the art of testing taking. Is that what we really want to be teaching residents?
In the latter half of every academic year, we encounter nervous third year residents fretting about the mechanics of a test that are not even utilized in daily practice at the expense of learning the fundamentals of radiology. I can understand their stresses because their role as studying residents is split twofold: to study for a test that does not directly correlate with what we do on a daily basis as well as study the fundamentals of becoming a good radiologist. There is conflict between the two. Residents waste time and energy devoting themselves to two divergent causes. It shouldn’t be like this.
So why has the ABR decided to resort to computerized multiple choice testing and changing the timing of the examinations? I have a couple of theories.
Cost Cutting/Increased ABR Income
What are some of the biggest advantages of converting an oral examination to a written test? No longer do you have supply the manpower to meet the demand on the days of the boards. It can be extremely expensive and time consuming to host tens of seasoned radiologists at a hotel anywhere to provide the services needed for creating an oral board exam. The costs saved in the short term are enormous. In addition, you don’t need to rent out a space to accommodate these radiologists for many days. Instead, the ABR can create fixed computers in a fixed site that can be used year after year in a few sites with less manpower to run the annual examinations. The cost savings can be significant.
Annual income from the dues can still be increased without a concomitant increase in annual expenses, significantly increasing the income of the “nonprofit” organization of the ABR. Salaries within the organization can be buttressed and maintained, a possible incentive for changing the examination.
Creating More Subspecialized Radiologists Working in Academic Radiology
Notice the change in timing of the general examination from the end of fourth year to the end of third year of residency. Why would an organization want to do this? If you think about it, radiology residents study most intensely prior to taking an examination, oral or computerized/written. Before, residents would go out to their first job with a significant body of knowledge fresh in mind on day one. Now residents have a full year to forget about the information that they learned for the core examination. Sure, they take a specialty certification examination after they finish fellowship. But, the studying and content is not the same. It is instead mostly dedicated toward the individual specialty What does that mean for the first year employee? These new radiologists are less capable to practice general radiology because their general radiology knowledge is more remote and they are less comfortable with “bread and butter” radiology imaging studies. This idea matches in practice what we are experiencing with new hires. They are more likely to stick to subspecialty work and less likely to want to practice general radiology.
This outcome is even more harmful for private practices throughout the United States. According to the AUR meetings and multiple papers on the subject (1,2,3), most practices need new radiologists that are sub specialized but can also cover generalize radiology work. Because of the new core examination timing and the content of the core exam, the needs of private practices continue to be unmet and do not match with the newly minted workforce.
So, where are more new radiologists, less competent in general radiology, forced to work? These new residents either need to work at academic facilities that can afford to harbor a highly subspecialized workforce or very large private practices and teleradiology companies that can divide the subspecialty work among its employees, providing benefits mostly to the chairmen of academic departments and the heads of very large private practices.
Who was most responsible for the decision of creating the test? It is the same representative body- chairmen of large academic departments and the largest of the private radiology practices that most likely will benefit from these changes. This represents a conflict of interest between the creators of the examination and the needs of radiology practices throughout the entire spectrum of radiology.
Examinations are important not just because it should establish a baseline of competency in a particular subject matter, but also just as importantly because it guides how the student learns. This process can change the landscape of a profession for years to come. In addition, prior to the creation of any examination, the foreseen outcomes should be match the needs of the specialty. In my opinion, the core examination has failed on all of these accounts. It deemphasizes the fundamentals of radiology, guides the radiology resident to learn information in ways that are not relevant, and leads to the outcome of weakening private practices by causing a mismatch between the needs of radiology practices and the differing abilities of the newly minted radiologist.
Unfortunately, the core examination has already become embedded in the radiology residency process and culture. Since so much time, effort, and expense has been dedicated to changing the examination and timing, it is very difficult to navigate back to a different format that will better match the needs of the radiology specialty. But, it is something that we should consider to make a better prepared radiology resident for the job market and to sustain our specialty for years to come. We are better than that.