She reached into her large canvas bag and handed it to me. “I read about your award, Dr. Fisher, and wanted you to have this to remember it by.”
I was stunned (and a bit embarrassed). “Thank you, Ms. Smith (not her real name).” There in my hands was a beautifully engraved replica of the front-page story in “The Journal,” the local National Naval Medical Center bulletin describing the Young Investigator Award I received from the North American Society of Pacing and Electrophysiology (NASPE) in 1992. Looking back, it was one of my proudest achievements in my young medical career that I can remember. That experience taught me how to do credible research, speak at a scientific session, support my work in a public forum, and write a scientific paper. Ultimately, the award opened important doors for me, like obtaining a fellowship slot at the University of California, San Francisco, one of the most academically productive electrophysiology programs in the country at the time. This plaque still hangs in my office today.
NASPE has since morphed to the Heart Rhythm Society (HRS) to better reflect the organization's more global mission to raise awareness and foster innovation in cardiac rhythm research and management. Cardiac electrophysiologists from around the world attend their annual scientific sessions to learn the latest and greatest innovations in our field. In 2015, HRS had $17M in revenues ($6.6M in registration fees (from Scientific Sessions and board review courses, I assume), $3M from grants, $2.7M from annual meeting exhibits, and $2M from membership dues, representing the largest source of revenues. These revenues were offset by $20M in expenses in FY 2015, somewhat larger than usual due to dissolution of the HRS Foundation which had accumulated a little more than $2M in losses due to lingering administrative overhead expenses. While it touts practicing physician officers, to each of their credit, none of them earned any revenue from their service to HRS in 2015. The CEO of HRS, Mr. James Youngblood, did enjoy a salary of $682,193 for his administrative services in 2015, however. So from what I can gather, MOC educational programs remain important to HRS’s bottom line. No wonder they are reluctant to lose those revenues for the organization! But supporting an illegitimate program that could damage a physician's career just for the revenue stream is wrong.
These past several weeks I received emails requesting renewal of my annual membership fees to HRS, fees I proudly paid every year since I won that NASPE Young Investigator Award. Usually, my administrative assistant would pay the annual fee automatically from my $2500 expense fund I receive from my hospital system. This year, after two years of struggling to have an impact on the MOC debacle and after having an internal debate with myself, I asked her to not pay my dues to both HRS and American College of Cardiology (ACC).
I do not make this decision lightly. I realize that many of my colleagues will think I’m being silly, rigid, or just plain dumb. After all, I won't be able to sit on steering committees for my profession without that membership or the opportunity to chair a scientific session. But most of them also know how strongly I feel about supporting the ABMS MOC program that was born from nothing more than a desire for our cash and is paid to an organization that has participated in blatant tax fraud, accounting irregularities, and strongman tactics that have threatened and intimidated too many unsuspecting and vulnerable physicians without just cause.
This is not to say I do not appreciate the earlier efforts the Heart Rhythm Society to change the MOC system for the better. Efforts like removing the double jeopardy requirement for cardiac electrophysiologists to have to certify in cardiology as a pre-condition to being granted recertification in cardiac electrophysiology, even though you passed the test, for instance, were influenced by their efforts. I also appreciated when they tried to hold sessions at their annual Scientific Sessions debating the need for MOC. But the session held with Dr. Douglas Zipes as MOC protagonist and Dr. Fred Kusumoto as MOC antagonist, allowed the protagonist to dictate the rules, insisting that no discussion of the finances of the ABIM and MOC program would occur, immediately stifling any real debate. Since that time, both the HRS (and their big brothers at the ACC) have increasingly shied away from their original public rebuke of the MOC program. It appears they have acquiesced to MOC's perpetuation, albeit in some as yet undisclosed “modified” form and with a new "blueprint." For this reason, I no longer find myself able to support any organization that allies itself with this scientifically and morally corrupt program.
The MOC re-certification cartel has become a $5.7 billion business enterprise annually in the US alone. It is incredibly divisive to our profession, dividing the bureaucratic in our ranks from those on the front line of patient care. Because this unproven and unwarranted program also threatens physicians’ ability to practice their trade and care for patients, I believe it causes significant harm to our patients by crushing the morale of too many physicians without legitimate cause just so the ABIM, the ABMS, and our own specialty societies can wallow in the MOC program's revenues. Many senior practicing physicians are leaving medicine because of this MOC requirement because they know it's just about the money. The fact that the adverse effects of this program to physicians and their patients have never been independently studied speaks volumes why this MOC program should end immediately.
I have no idea if withholding my dues will make a difference in the fight against MOC. Certainly if HRS and ACC change their mind and work to end the MOC program entirely, I’ll be the first to reinstate my dues. But what else can I do in the short term? Keep paying? While I'll lose my subscriptions to the Heart Rhythm Journal and the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, I can search our library for articles I need. Still, I suspect I could lose some of the camaraderie that I have enjoyed in my relationship with HRS over the years, and that will be missed, but it seems like a relatively small price to pay.
My years-long investigation of the ABIM has taken me to places I never fathomed I'd have to go to get to the bottom of this story. It is strange the effect this story has had on me. On one hand, I feel greater connection to more of my peers than ever, yet on the other, I feel a quiet discontent from the House of Medicine's leadership that stands to lose the support of their rank and file as the story unfolds. I suppose I should not be surprised, especially since the MOC program has secretly funded so many for so long. But the stakes appear to be getting higher for all involved.* I just hope that exposing all of the corruption against practicing physicians by those in our own ranks ultimately brings the practice of medicine to a better place.
To offset this ennui, it would be great to have an opporuntity to meet those who might join me in my efforts to stop this program by refusing to pay their society dues. Perhaps we could arrange a trip to Chicago in May, 2017 to hoist a beer together in the epicenter of the ACGME MOC bureaucratic Machine together. It would seem quite apropos and I'd look forward to hosting that event. Let's call it "Lemonade out of MOC lemons."
We need to bring back the integrity of our profession ourselves, one dues payment at a time. It is clearer than ever that no one else will do this for us. It would be quite remarkable if this movement gained steam, but I'm really not holding my breath.
But if it did, it would be nice to at my patient's thoughtful plaque and feel pride in what it means to be a member of a subspecialty medical society again.
* I would have posted a picture of my award to accompany this post, but it appears my server may have been hacked. I'll know more in 48 hours as technicians are working to resolve the problem.