Physicians have long argued that before 1990, board certification was an independent and generally-accepted assessment of the quality of their post-graduate specialty training. After 1990, however, ABMS board certification became two separate products: (1) an assessment of their post-graduate training and (2) a "continuous professional development" (CPD) product tied to their original post-graduate training assessment.
The logic for this two-product theory is simple. Before January 1, 1990, the CPD product was truly voluntary for physicians to perform. But after a trial run of this voluntary testing, fewer and fewer physicians opted to participate in the program in large part because of its unproven value and expense. To counter the declining enrollment, the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) "Task Force" (and eventually all other ABMS member boards) decided to tie participation in the ABMS CPD product to the validity of a physician's initial assessment of their post-graduate training:
"Thus, the stage was set for the Board to embark on a new era in which its diplomates would be asked, but not required, to renew the validity of their certificates at periodic intervals or face the uncertain circumstances of loss of their status as certified internists, subspecialists, or holders of certificates of added qualifications."(1)It didn't matter if a physician had participated in other self-directed Continuing Medical Education (CME) on their own accord; unless a physician performed the ABMS-sanctioned CPD program, they would lose their original ABMS board certification credential and the privileges that credential imparts to physicians in terms of academic, professional, and economic value.
This tie between a physician's original post-graduate assessment and lifelong continuous professional development proved remarkably lucrative for the ABMS and their member boards. So much so, that the ABMS CPD program was later trademarked as "Maintenance of Certification®" (MOC®) and had its own profit line on ABMS member board tax forms. The tie was so lucrative, in fact, that the largest member board, the ABIM, created an undisclosed shadow organization, the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (later renamed the ABIM Foundation) and secretly funneled tens of millions of dollars for nearly ten years without disclosing its existence to physicians and the public and purchased a $2.3 million condominium for themselves. After its public debut online in 1999, the ABIM Foundation later off-shored millions of those funds to the Cayman Islands in 2015.
Is it any wonder that physicians would be upset?
Yet here we are.
So far, the ABMS member boards have had exceptionally good fortune protecting their MOC® product in court, arguing before various district court judges that ABMS board certification is not two products that are illegally tied, but rather just one big "board certification" product.
Last week was no exception. The long-running lawsuit filed by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) suit against the ABMS was dismissed with prejudice. In addition, the antitrust suit field by two psychiatrists against the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN) was similarly dismissed (along the same legal lines of the ABIM and ABR lawsuits) but WITHOUT prejudice. (The judge left room here for the original Complaint to be amended - perhaps because the ABR lawsuit was later amended and has been fully briefed but not yet decided).
It is interesting to this observer that there has been little fanfare in the media regarding these last two rulings in favor of the ABMS member boards. I suspect the ABMS and their associated specialty boards know that all eyes are on the ABIM antitrust lawsuit appeal recently filed. That appeal explains the two-product tie created by the ABIM clearly. Perhaps they'd rather not bring attention to that case that's due for oral arguments on the 23rd of October. So much hinges on the outcome of that case for both them and working physicians.
Irrespective of the cases outcome, however, the credibility and value of ABMS board certification has been tarnished forever. Given the revelation of the conflicts of interests and lucrative nature of ABMS board certification, rhe only way the ABMS brand could redeem itself is for a full accounting of all that has transpired against working physicians by these self-appointed non-representative academic physicians and the non-physicians corporate directors now at the helm of these lucrative ABMS specialty boards.
-Wes(1) Richard J. Glassock, MD, John A. Benson, MD, Robert B. Copeland, MD, Herman A. Godwin, MD, et al. Time-Limited Certification and Recertification: The Program of the American Board of Internal Medicine. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-114-1-59