Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Reviewing The Regulators

In 1990 the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) changed their requirements for physician board certification from a voluntary life-long designation and educational process to a time-limited designation lasting 10 years.  This decision to require repeated testing, the public was told, was based on data from a single highly flawed retrospective literature review that suggested physician competence deteriorates over time.  Despite this, over the ensuing years hospitals and insurance companies increasingly require physicians to be board certified for credentialing or billing purposes.  And as a result of changing the life-long designation of board certification to a temporary one, physicians were left with little choice but to pay for and participate in the ABMS/ABIM MOC program to practice their trade.

In 2005, the ABMS modified their re-certification requirements and created a program called "Maintenance of Certification" (MOC).  This program required completion of "Practice Improvement Modules" in addition to the completion of certain knowledge-base testing modules before a physician could sit for their secure re-certifying examination.  This decision to include "Practice Improvement Modules" was a unilateral one by the ABMS and its subsidiaries and was never scientifically challenged or validated by the independent physician community.

This year, the requirements for MOC changed again when all US physicians were now required to pay for and participate in the ABMS/ABIM MOC process every two years, in addition to re-taking their certifying examination every 10 years.  Because of the added cost and time requirements with the most recent change to the ABMS/ABIM  MOC process, physicians began questioning the MOC program's legitimacy as a means of assuring physician quality verses the ABIM's bottom line.  An online petition was signed by over 18,850 physicians asking to "recall the changes to MOC and to institute a simple pathway consisting of a recertification test every ten years."   In his response to this petition and to support the credibility of the MOC process, the President and CEO of the ABIM referred to the research conducted by the ABIM leadership and staff:

"There is a good deal of research demonstrating the value of MOC: from the validity of the examination, to the importance of independent assessments – clinicians are not good at evaluating their own weaknesses. All of this research drives and informs our program requirements and product development."  

Review of the ABIM’s "research" topics showed they cover a wide range of important clinical care issues including trust, teamwork, ethics, obligations of the Hippocratic Oath, characteristics of internal medicine physicians and their practices, teaching, staffing patterns, electronic health records, clinical skills, and the structure of medical homes. But closer inspection of much of this work shows it was not research, but rather opinion and editorial.  Much of the "research" resides behind expensive online paywalls free to the academic community, but expensive for the non-academic physician and public to review.  Given these realities, before casting aspersions on physicians' ability to evaluate their own weaknesses, it appears a review of the ABIM's "research" in regard to its clinical legitimacy is in order.

In 2014, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published the entire database of $77 billion dollars of payments made to US health care providers in 2012.  The data are easily reviewed using a website created by the Wall Street Journal.  In an effort to establish the credibility of the ABIM leadership and staff's journal publications as it pertains to the various aspects of medical practice they claim to actively monitor, each author published in the 2014 collection of journal articles published on the ABIM website was cross-referenced with their CMS 2012 Medicare provider payment data.


 The ABIM publishes journal articles authored by ABIM staff and leadership for the years 2000-2014 on its website.  The 31 articles published so far in 2014 were randomly selected for review. Each author of each paper was then compared to their 2012 Medicare payment data.  If the payment data for a particular author were non-zero, then the total number of inpatient and outpatient new and existing patient encounters were totaled to determine the total 2012 annual Medicare patient care encounters seen by the author.  Procedure counts were not added to this total of encounters, since the intent here was to "even the playing field" between "proceduralists" and hospital- or office-based clinicians in terms of the number of patient contact episodes they had each year.  In the event more than one physician author's first and last names were identical, the source article was reviewed to assure the proper physician data was obtained based on their city, state, or academic institution.

Authors designated as employees of ABIM, those with acknowledged conflicts of interest or those with non-academic or policy affiliations were also recorded. The average, median and standard deviation of 2012 Medicare payments and patient encounters were then calculated.

As a point of reference, the author of this blog post received a total of $163,184.55 in Medicare payments representing 529 patient encounters (298+75+13 established outpatient visits, 31 outpatient new visits, 82+14 initial hospital/inpatient care and 16 subsequent hospital care visits) according to the 2012 Medicare database. This number of encounters represented 1.5 days of outpatient clinic visits per week in 2012 (personal data) as well as inpatient patient care encounters payments received from Medicare patients. This encounter volume represented 42% of this author’s total number of clinical encounters billed in 2012 (personal data).


Thirty-one articles published by the ABIM staff and leadership in 2014 (so far) represented work by 150 authors.  Of the 31 articles published on the ABIM's website to date for 2014, ten of them (33%) were published solely by ABIM employees or leadership. Only 80 of the 150 authors held an MD degree.  The authors were a heterogeneous mix of US and non-US physicians, one veterinarian, nurses, students, statisticians, researchers, representatives from National Board of Medical Examiners, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Urban League, the Foundation for Advancement of International Medical Education and Research, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., the National Collaborative for Improving Primary Care Through Industrial and Systems Engineering, the VA medical system, staff members of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, and others from Consumer Reports Health.

Clinical Involvement

Of  physicians with an MD degree, the average 2012 Medicare payment amount was $18,196.97 ± $68,220.55 (median $0). Only thirty-seven of the 80 physician authors (46%) had Medicare payments paid to them in 2012.  Three authors had payments exceeding $100,000 in 2012 while the vast majority (30 of the 37) received under $25,000. This average payment amount corresponded to an average of 131 ± 308 patient encounters (median 0) for the entire year 2012.

If all of the authors were included in the analysis, the average 2012 Medicare payment was $9705.05 ± $50,502.95. The median Medicare payment to the authors published in 2014 to date was $0. The average number of patient encounters per year in 2014 was 70 ± 234. The median number of patient encounters in 2012 by the authors published to date was 0.

The entire spreadsheet (pdf) of the 2012 Medicare payment and encounter data by each author that published with ABIM leadership and staff in 2014 can be reviewed here.


This study is the first to cross-reference a portion of ABIM publishing authors to the 2012 Medicare provider payment database. While Medicare payment data might not represent the full workload of today's clinical physicians, it is the most complete database of US physician clinical work performed on patients in the United States published to date.

The ABMS/ABIM's Maintenance of Certification program has been criticized by many working physicians as onerous, expensive, time-consuming and a poor reflection of physician quality. In his response to physician concerns over the MOC process, the President and CEO of the ABIM stated:

"ABIM's mission is to enhance the quality of health care by certifying internists and subspecialists who demonstrate the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential for excellent patient care."

Dramatic changes to the health care landscape have occurred over the past five years.  If the mission of the ABIM is to truly certify internists who with “skills and attitudes essential for excellent patient care," we are left to question the legitimacy of recommendations made by physicians who no longer care for patients in today’s health care arena. The ABIM seems content with making recommendations to physicians while being woefully inxperienced about the challenges that face internists today.   In fact, the data presented in their work confirms that physician quality is being regulated by an unqualified body.

While some might argue that regimented study and time-consuming non-clinical data acquisitions are required to assure physician quality, it remains quite possible that such a dishonest and lopsided approach will backfire as physicians refuse to participate in this process or retire early from medicine just as more patients are entering our health care system. Burdening clinical physicians with unrealistic and unproven demands for non-clinical tasks detracts from needed patient care.  Recall that only three of the physicians included in the author list of ABIM's 2014 publications received over $100,000 of Medicare payments while 30 of 37 physicians in the published articles in 2014 received less than $25,000.   Might the recommendations and data that the ABIM is making available to hospital groups and insurance organizations be seriously flawed?

Even a cursory review of the background of the authors of several published works of the ABIM staff and leadership reviewed suggests a troubling narrative. For instance, one article included with the ABIM's 2014 list of journal articles is entitled "Internists' attitudes about assessing and maintaining clinical competence" (J General Int Med 2014; 29(4):608-614).  While this title might seem reassuring to the public that the ABIM is serious about their mission, their credibility becomes suspect when closer inspection of the background of the authors revealed only one of the six authors had any clinical encounters in 2012 and another author was a veterinarian. In another article entitled "Time to trust: longitudinal integrated clerkships and entrustable professional activities," (Academic Medicine, 89(2), pp 201-4) none of the authors received payments for patient care in 2012 and the authors acknowledge the ideas presented were provided by two political "think tanks."  Should these be the people we entrust to develop clerkship ideals and "entrustable professional activities" (whatever that is) for our future physicians?

We should note that despite fourteen years of articles on the ABIM's website, none of the ABIM’s "research" has ever evaluated any negative consequence of their MOC program.  Rather, these ABIM papers "drives and informs" additional unsubstantiated "program development" like a public relations firm. Without independent assessment of their practices, it remains completely possible that the MOC process causes more harm than benefit to actual patient care delivery as a result.

The Medicare payment data of ABIM authors also begs the question, how are the ABIM physicians and legislators spending their time?  It is apparent that most physician members of the ABIM are not involved in clinical care.  Given the conflicts of interest mentioned in the various citations, physician quality assurance is not the ABIM's priority.  Perhaps the physician members of the ABIM would have more credibility advising struggling doctor-employees on beefing up their curriculum vitae, earning consulting fees, perfecting public relations skills, and creating multiple income streams since their annual revenue take with their MOC program implementation went from $46,131,129 in 2010 to $55,625,925 in 2012 (Data from the 2011 and 2013 IRS Form 990 published on guidestar.org/).  Given these data, it is appears that the ABIM is more concerned about padding their resume to (1) create and air of legitimacy, (2) serve a political agenda, and (3) to provide a smoke screen for the high salaries of their board members.

Clearly, busy front-line full-time practicing physicians do not have the time for creating publishing mills or for scientifically meaningless survey collection.  Patients want capable practicing physician availability, not survey collectors. Assuring physician quality should not be about creating and funding a political action committee subservient to a political agenda, but rather understanding the challenges physicians face in their workplace and knowledge base and working collaboratively to offer continuous professional improvement.


There are several limitations to this study.  First, because the CMS Medicare payment database does not capture work performed on patients under the age of 65, the database does not accurately reflect the total clinical work load a physician performs each year.  Physicians who do not accept Medicare for payment would not appear on this database.  However, since older patients commonly access our health care system more frequently as they age, it would be expected that internists writing policy for health care delivery would participate in the Medicare government program.  Second, the 2012 Medicare payment data reviewed does not correlate to the year the articles were published in the literature.  However, one would expect that experienced physicians who changed the testing requirements for MOC in 2014 would have recent direct patient care experience to appreciate the many factors that impact physicians today.  Finally, reviewing only one year's literature published on the ABIM's website might have introduced sampling bias.  Still, the sampling of the most recent year offers the advantage of reviewing articles that might affect upcoming policy decisions.


Physicians are not above proving their competence and establishing quality standards, especially if those standards are scientifically sound and transparent.  The legitimacy of the MOC process to assure physician quality should be called into question based on a careful literature review of the many conflicts exposed by this review and the limited recent clinical experience of those that contribute to their evidence base.  Citing numerous publications to legitimize the MOC program creates the illusion that this process of insuring quality care and has been vetted by actual scientific data.  Nothing could be further from the truth.



Ron Clark, MD said...

Look, the Emperor has no clothes!

Paul Kempen said...

This is important and revealing work! The reason the ABIM executives feel so convinced that recertification is important is because besides being the mainstay of their incomes, they have NO CLINICAL EXPERIENCE upon which to draw: THEY NEED recertification, not the practicing physicians.
It is also important to recognize that the median payment and encounter rate of these authors is ZERO!
Just say NO to recertification and work to change your state and hospital bylaws to EXCLUDE this extortion scheme!

Anonymous said...

As an avid reader--and an even more enthusiastic BELIEVER--of what Wes and Paul share with us, I have but a few basic questions: When does the boycott begin? How do we make it start? If we don't fund the MOC process, doesn't ABIM wither and die? Stop feeding $ to the ABIM beast! As a start, we need a critical high profile, preferably academic, institution to suspend MOC requirements and reject them in the future.

Unknown said...

Spot on Wes; hope this gets around

K Murray Leisure MD Infectious diseases MA USA said...

Tremendous work, Dr Wes. Would you like to publish w me the false Anghoff Standard information with your study data in the medical literature? This information is too valuable to be buried in a blog. We must work with our university colleagues, solid medical education groups outside of ABMS, specialty societies, AAPS, and organized state medical societies to stop MOC entirely. Negotiations and collaborations with ABIM or ABMS are no longer an option. Immediate moratorium or better yet, cessation of MOC operations. Thank you Dr Wes!!

DrWes said...

Dr. Leisure -

Happy to co-publish an article in a journal, but as far as this data being "buried" in the blog, I would argue the opposite - the data does not reside behind a pay wall,is open to the public, can be openly vetted and criticized, and is available to both physicians and the public - hence, it really isn't "buried" at all, and has extensive reach this way - perhaps more than conventional scientific journals.

Sure, I may not be able to add this particular work to my academic CV, but I also think that taking a scientific approach to a non-scientific process like MOC would have a hard time getting published in a scientific journal, many of whom (like the NEJM) openly support MOC as they brand their MOC preparation materials).

As you say, this information is important and should be made available to the broadest way possible, hence why I stuck with this format.

Anonymous said...

This fat parasite, called ABMS along with all 24 tentacles called medical boards must die. After we defeat MOC we should push forward until we defeat the entire mafia of medical boards.