Certification Culture


Clear evidence of our government bureaucracy run amok is found in the rapidly growing area of certification. Years ago people would get hired for a job, perhaps, but not necessarily after specific training in a vocational school, college, or university, and would then proceed to learn the trade through years of applied work. Trainees or apprentices early in their careers may have been designated as such, but the general public had enough common sense to determine whether someone seemed to know what they were doing and were worth employing for some specific task.

Through the ages systems have developed for the certification of people as experts in their particular trades. Early on these were guilds of successful tradesmen. Later various boards arose to certify and license doctors, pharmacists, and veterinarians. Attorneys are certified as fit to practice through their Bar Associations. There have been a number of factors which have contributed to the development of these certification systems including 1) a rapidly expanding knowledge base in society which has made it impossible for people to know enough to judge for themselves whether the people they want to employ actually know what they claim to know; 2) experts in various fields wanting to preserve the integrity of their profession from people who may try to claim expertise that they do not possess; and 3) governments wanting to protect citizens by providing a mechanism for determining whether people are the experts they claim to be.

In recent years, however, the certification system has become a behemoth with such complexity and momentum that attempting to even slow this monster, let alone begin to reign it in, is becoming a nearly impossible task. A quick search begins to reveal the size of the problem. In any given state the number of certified occupations runs into the hundreds: the state of Washington lists almost five hundred. Certifications run the gamut from accountants to zoologists, and just listing all of these along with their basic requirements could easily fill a book. You can become a certified aircraft fuel distributor, a certified tattoo or body piercing artist, a certified snowmobile dealer, a certified egg dealer, a certified East Asian medicine practitioner, or a certified fur dealer. There are certifications for firearms, fireworks, fire sprinklers, you you can even become a certified fire protection engineer. You even need certifications for your leisure activities: certified martial arts participants, wrestlers, kick boxers, and whitewater river outfitters. You can be a licensed seed dealer, shellfish harvester, waste tire carrier, or taxidermist. And lets only hope that Anthony Weiner found himself a licensed sex offender treatment provider.

“So why has this system gotten so out of control?” You may ask “Each of the factors driving these certifications that you listed before appear to be noble goals. Isn’t the whole certification system a good thing?” To answer these questions, we must reexamine the factors driving the system and explore their ‘dark side’. Each of these has what we could generously call a contraposition, or more cynically call their seamy underbelly or ‘dirty little secret’.

Let us start with #1 above. The human knowledge base is rapidly expanding to such an extent that even for your exceptional ‘Renaissance man’ or polymath cannot know everything. Theoretically, it may at one time have been possible for someone to know the sum of human knowledge, and over the years there have been a number of claims of people who in fact did so. These range from Aristotle in ancient Greece to Leonardo da Vinci, Athanasius Kircher, Gottfried Leibniz, Thomas Young, and Max Weber. Of course it is impossible for any of these men to have known everything known to humans in their time, but these well read individuals of high IQ and high capability at least could hold their own on just about any conceivable topic. No one in the last hundred years could make such a claim, and in recent decades just knowing the index has become a challenge. The extent of human knowledge continues to expand at exponential rates. In the future it may be possible for an artificial intelligence to once again know everything, but that is a discussion is for another time.

The problem is that knowledge is expanding at a rate that any system that tries to certify someone as an expert is out of date by the time it is established. Just as software standards run years behind the cutting edge of innovation, and are often useless by the time a standards organization can put them together, the certification tests in rapidly growing fields are hopelessly outdated. In my occupation, cardiology, the science has advanced very rapidly, and old standards of care are often being revised and retooled, if not overturned entirely.

This creates a huge quandary for the people who are making and taking the certification tests. If a newly published study overturns an old way of thinking, and a question about this particular topic appears on the recertification boards, how is a knowledgeable expert to answer? Do you answer the question with the knowledge as it was at the time the board question was likely written, or do you answer with the newer, and (presumably) more correct information in mind? This becomes even more of a conundrum for people who are performing research. These people may have knowledge that is not yet available to the general public, and so they may be forced to answer questions with information they know to be wrong. And the more cutting-edge an expert is, the more difficult this task becomes, and the more that expert may get ‘wrong’ on an outdated recertification board test.

An entire industry has now arisen in order to prepare people for the certification tests. A common theme of these board preparation courses is knowing what the proper ‘board answer’ is, regardless of the state of knowledge in that given field. So we have essentially built a surrealistic alternate reality of ‘meta-truth’ that needs to be studied and mastered in order to pass the board certification tests. And the saddest reality of this alternate universe is that the true experts – the people with the best, actual, cutting edge knowledge – are the ones who have the hardest time with it. The average schmoe who doesn’t keep up with what is really going on in any given field will probably do just fine on the test.

“So if it is so hard to figure out who really is an expert in any given field, why do we do it?” you may ask. Well now we get to the dark side of #2 above. Attaining a level of expertise in any field is difficult. It takes time, dedication, and will to become a master of a craft. People who have dedicated their lives to any particular trade tend to become very fond of the art of their work, and they want to defend that trade from outsiders who have not worked as hard as they have. This is a very natural human instinct, and there is not necessarily anything wrong with it.

However, it is not the master of any given profession who feels threatened by interlopers, it is the novice. The person who is least sure of their own ability will feel the most threatened by someone else’s ability to outperform them. And so the certification system tends not to be built by the best people in any given trade, but the worst, because they want to create a back-stop to prevent any others from overtaking their ‘turf’. It is these people who are so uncertain of their own skills that they must find some way, some badge, some stamp-of-approval from above to prove to people that they are worthy of their title. So they create a certification system that gives the illusion of expertise for all of the people who pass the bar. But we know that not all ‘experts’ are equal, and we should not pretend that it is so.

There is an old joke in medicine: What do you call the guy who came last in his class at medical school? Answer: Doctor. Part of the problem with branding everyone who passes the board exam as an ‘expert’ is that now the system can treat all of the doctors as interchangeable widgets. In our current system no doctor is allowed to charge any more for his or her services than anyone else, and the insurance industry and government can choose to pay whatever they like for those services. The doctors just have to shut up to get paid. In a just system, skilled doctors would be able to charge more than unskilled doctors. (Yes, this happens in some very small slivers of the industry such as dermatology and cosmetic surgery where society has determined that it is OK for ‘optional’ medical procedures to be paid for out of the system, but for most of medicine doctors are paid whatever the Medicare system determines to be enough.) If you want to see the best cardiologist in the world, shouldn’t you have to pay a premium? Or do you just want to leave it to chance as to whether you will get to see a top notch doctor versus the latest foreign medical graduate?

The Maintenance of Certification system (MOC), the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA, or ‘Obamacare’), and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA), all treat doctors as interchangeable widgets. You cannot charge more or less than anyone else, regardless of your level of service or expertise. The foreign medical graduate who assessed you from the doorway saying something you didn’t understand is paid the same as your best hands-on, attentive, caring, and emotive doctor. And the sad fact is that the doctors who really care and want to spend the time with you get paid the least, because they have put your care first, and are not in it for the numbers. The cold, quick, calculating doctor who works as a machine and never makes an emotional connection to any patient will get paid the best. Because time and thinking are not rewarded, but getting people through the door is.

This brings us to the dark side of #3 above, which is government enriching itself in the process of all of this certification. Each of these certifications requires a fee which must be paid to cover the costs of the test. But is that all it covers? Recent investigations of the depths of corruption in the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and their underlying partners in crime – in my case the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) – have found that the people making these systems, who we have already determined are the least capable in their milieu, have been enriching themselves on the backs of the hard working doctors in the field. Not only do these ‘doctors’ (I use quotes because for the most part these people do not actually see patients) pay themselves high six-figure salaries, higher than most of their actually working counterparts, they lavish upon themselves benefits such as paid spousal travel, chauffeur driven town-cars, and condominiums. These governing bodies which must make up reasons for their own existence are just another manifestation of the bubble inhabitants who have controlled the system for their own gain. We are talking about millions, if not billions, of dollars that are at play and the sucking sound keeps coming from Washington, and in this case Chicago.

It is time to put a stop to this entire culture. We need to return to our roots and abolish the entire certification system. “What?” you ask “you mean even doctors and lawyers?” Yes, and Indian chiefs as well. Let us build a new system where people can be knowledgeable about and thus feel comfortable with the level of expertise of their brethren. But let us also build a system where the true expert can be paid his or her worth.

Why fight this MOC fight?

Doctors everywhere, I implore you. I know you – I am one of you – and I know your nature. We want to soothe, to placate, to moderate pain.

This current MOC fight is anathema to many of you. In many of your minds it is too hard, too dangerous, and too disruptive. What is most disturbing is that some of you think that it is unnecessary or even pointless. Please let me show you why this is not true. Indulge my extemporation, so that I may show you why this is critical to our future.

Why it is necessary to fight the Maintenance of Certification program:

Many of you may be asking why it is necessary to fight this fight. Why not just go through the MOC modules, earn your points, pay your fees, and be done with it? This is not a money fight (we will discuss this later). This is a fight for principles. You are a professional, and maintaining your status as a professional requires you to be up to date on the key elements of your area of expertise. We already face requirements placed by our medical boards for continuing medical education. I personally could not face my patients if I were not informed of current advances in medicine, particularly in my field. It is part of being a doctor and a professional.

The ABMS and ABIM would have you believe that patients are demanding that their doctors undergo some artificial trials in order to determine that they are competent, because they have no other way of deciding if their doctor is good. I have more faith in the abilities of the average patient. Patients have a sense of the competence of you as their doctor, and they are able to ask questions to proscam-alert-1024x788be your knowledge. They also have the freedom (for now) to go to a different doctor if they are not impressed.

The ABMS and ABIM are playing on your underlying insecurity that you do not know everything, but what they are implying is that you need their help to prove that you know anything. They are using your inner fears to their advantage. I can tell you with certainty, that with everything you have gone through, you are more than competent, you are very knowledgeable, and you do not need more and more certifications on your wall to prove that fact.

Continuing medical education is a good thing – that we can agree on. But beyond the requirements of the medical boards and your own personal search for knowledge we do not need any new programs.

Why it is necessary to fight MOC now:

This fight is insidious. The people who are thrusting this upon us are financially enmeshed in this system and do not have your best interests in mind. This fight needs to come to a head now, because the majority of the regulations that will hinder us in the future have yet to be written.

The passage of MACRA, which was the ‘SGR fix’, brought in new concepts for physician pay. Now we will be paid in one of two ways, the Alternative Payment Models (APMs), or Merit-Based Incentive Payment System (MIPS).

If you are part of a larger system or in some specialties, you may get paid as part of a lump sum through the APM. God only knows what crumbs will be left of the lump sum after the hospital system takes its part.

For others who will be in the MIPS system, your pay will be determined by (straight from the cms web site):

  • Quality
  • Resource use
  • Clinical practice improvement
  • Meaningful use of certified EHR technology

Note that we have the old MOC part 4, practice improvement, which was supposedly put to rest, rising like a zombie to stalk us again. And we are also to be judged on ‘quality’, which no one can seem to define. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined obscenity with the phrase ‘I know it when I see it’. This is about the best we can do for defining medical quality. The real obscenity today is the ABMS/ABIM system.

What about the money?

I said before that it is not about the money, but it is. Certainly to the non-practicing bureaucrats at the ABMS/ABIM it is about the money, because they do not do anything productive on their own. They have to take your money to pay for their own salaries. And it is your hard earned money. To some of you it may seem a pittance, but to others these are large sums. Please take pity on your fellow doctors who may not be in as good of a financial position. The greedy overlords of the certification scam are filleting us to obtain their seven figure salaries. I wonder how often they take call.


Physicians everywhere: You are good people, but you are doing evil by your complacency.

I am writing this to every physician who is frustrated with the certification system that we have in place and that is becoming increasingly encoded into our laws. We have reached a crossroads in the evolution of health care in America. We, as physicians, have been under assault literally for decades.

We have suffered degradations and loss of prestige as an army of administrators has constructed a fortress of policy around the hospitals and issued ‘guidelines’ which now are treated as treatment mandates for our patients. And, I am very sorry to say, many of us have been complicit in this tragedy.

Some physicians have been overtly complicit by taking non-practicing administrative positions and dictating not only how we should care for our patients, but also implying that we are not competent to do so. Many others have been silently complicit, as we have sat by and let the rot set in. As the great theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

We are now subjected to MOC in order to somehow prove ourselves, when by the very act of treating our patients and looking up information to do so shows that we are dedicated to maintaining our profession. Our profession: that is what is being called into doubt and what many bureaucrats would like to do away with. Instead of dedicated professionals seeking out the best treatments for our patients, they would prefer us to be interchangeable widgets.

Enough! It is time for ACTION.

Our leaders have abandoned us, and it is not enough to moan and complain to your colleagues. I have faith that you will continue to keep your knowledge up to date, but it is time to STOP ALL MOC ACTIVITY. DO NOT PAY ANOTHER PENNY TO THE ABMS, ABIM, or whatever specialty board you fall under.

CALL the hospital executives. ASK about the bylaws. PROPOSE changes to any language regarding maintenance of certification, and make sure the NBPAS is included as an acceptable alternative. DEMAND that these things be discussed at the hospital board meetings.

To anyone who is grandfathered in, or beyond the last needed certification, you are HURTING MEDICINE if you do not act. You need to help the people behind you who may be taking care of you when you are sick and dying.

Nelson Mandela said “We fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large, or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.” This is precisely how we need to shape our fight.

We must take action. Signing petitions is not enough. You should call your hospital administrators on a regular basis and let them know that the physicians are not happy.

Burnout is at an all-time high, and good men and women are leaving the field of medicine in record numbers. The surveys show that it is bureaucracy and maintenance of certification that is driving good people away. We must put a stop to this. Do not hang your head and say that the fight is lost, because the very future of American medicine is at stake.

The administrators of every hospital should be harassed until every single hospital in this country accepts alternate board certification rather than the ABMS monopoly.

Be brave and act boldly. I will leave you with a last quote to remember when you have doubts. “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.” – Aung San Suu Kyi

Timeline of corruption

Dr. Wes has another fantastic post with a timeline of the corruption at the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM).

We should keep shining the light of truth and hopefully someday we will get out of this miasma.

This will not get looked into until we have change in Washington. The Obama Department of Justice is in collusion with corruption throughout the government – just look at the IRS, never mind the ATF. It is the Chicago way. Corruption, lies, and more corruption.

There is a great movie out now (it is a foreign language film, but do not let that deter you) about how the German government and people after World War II acted as if nothing had happened. A generation of kids was raised with no knowledge of the holocaust and Nazi atrocities. It is called the Labyrinth of Lies. This is a fantastic film, and it deserves to be seen. It is also directly relevant to our government today and the lies which are destroying medicine.

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) has NOT been our friend in this, but I hope that we can change this. I confronted president-elect Rich Chazal about all of this and he says that it is “complicated”. He claims that the ACC has looked at the ABIMs books and they are “clean”.

He is either in denial about the problems or a liar. The books may look “clean” to trusting eyes, but may look entirely different to a forensic accountant.

We need an Attorney General who is willing to investigate this kind of regulatory capture and deep government corruption. I have no idea which of the candidates up for president can lead to this kind of change, but I can tell you who will not: Hillary, the Queen of Cover-up.

I don’t know where this will go, but the more stuff like this gets covered up, the more good people will be driven out of medicine.

Thank you for allowing the space to rant. The more awareness of this issue we can get, the better.


Regulatory Capture

db makes some good points about the problems in medicine today

My responses:

I would like to find anyone with half a brain in Washington and be able to strip all of this away.

1. Meaningful use – this is just silly now that most people are using EHR. I have been 100% electronic for 7 years but still do not meet “meaningful use” requirements without jumping through hoops. The government spent 40 years developing VISTA/CPRS – they should just say we all have to use that and give it to us. (it is already available in some form for free due to FOI requests)

2. Approval forms – I think I should be paid for everything I fill out. Lawyers bill for all paperwork. We should as well.

3. Prior authorization – You do of course recognize that ‘prior authorization’ is purely devised to save the insurance companies money, right? It is an entirely meaningless hoop to jump through, because the studies prove that adding hoops/regulations means that you get less of that activity. They know that a good percentage of studies will just not be done because it is too much of a hassle.

4. Billing requirements (E&M coding) was put into place to try to compensate appropriately due to complexity but it is a joke. Templates have made the notes meaningless. The only way to do away with this is to have some TRUST in the doctors. How about the old Reagan doctrine of TRUST but VERIFY. Doctors can write whatever they want in their notes to make a meaningful contribution to the care of the patient and to communicate to other doctors, like the old days. Doctors then bill at whatever level they deem fit for their services. Random audits of say 10% of the notes would be performed, and people abusing the system would be drummed out.

5. Performance measures are meaningless. Let good doctors charge more for their services. People will pay if they like their doctor. If you are a crappy doctor, people won’t pay.

6. Admission diagnosis is the dumbest thing that some hospital bean counter ever thought of. I usually admit people to the hospital because I have no idea what their diagnosis is, and I need to do some tests to figure it out.

The bottom line is that doctors have allowed business people to take over medicine. The business people were the C students when we were busting our asses and making As. Why do we let these losers come in and take over the whole show?

We have had pitiful leadership in medicine. People are too busy taking care of patients, or to scared to stick their neck out. Our “leadership” of non-practicing physicians has gotten into bed with the politicians and have gotten fat and happy sucking the teat of the government. The entire system is hopelessly corrupt. The AMA makes its money from the coding system. The ABMS/ABIM make their money making doctors jump through hoops filling out satisfaction surveys and taking tests. And now all of this is being codified by nameless and faceless bureaucrats in Washington under the aegis of MACRA.

The “SGR fix” was a scam and has taken more power away from the doctors.

The doctors have to take back the system if we are to have any hope for American medicine.

We will have to strike or revolt or something – if anyone has ideas of where to start, let me know.

ABMS is Evil Incarnate

The Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program is a money-making scheme concocted by a group of non-practicing physicians who are paying themselves high salaries and living large on the backs of working doctors. This is a corrupt system, and ethically wrong, despite the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) putting out press releases about the “benefits” of MOC, and the importance of having “quality” physicians.

Unfortunately, this program has now been codified into law as part of the sustainable growth rate “SGR Fix” legislation. This is crony capitalism at its worst. There are major conflicts of interest here, and the ABMS and ABIM are colluding to extort money from practicing physicians to finance their high salaries.

And exactly what are these high salaries for? These doctors do not see patients. They sit in meetings and make themselves feel important by telling other physicians what they are doing wrong.

Most working physicians are too busy to have noticed what has been happening behind their backs, but when they do see the full consequences of the current legislation there will be an uprising. We will have to wait and see the fallout of the alternative National Board of Physicians and Surgeons (NBPAS) and the ongoing Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) lawsuit, but I hope that enough physicians wake up to what is happening before it is too late.

The ABIM has failed us, the American Medical Association (AMA) has failed us, and even the American College of Cardiology (ACC) has failed us. Richard Chazal had the gall to tell the Alabama ACC that we should be working with the ABIM/ABMS because trying to get out of their corrupt MOC schemes is “complicated”. He says that the ACC reviewed the ABIM books and they were “clean”. He also defended the ACC support for MACRA, because he said that “we needed to end SGR”. Yes, and we got a poison pill in MACRA to do it. He was too blind to see the truth. MACRA puts in place APMs – the rules have not been written yet, but essentially, the hospital/ACO will get paid, take whatever they want, and give the doctor whatever crumbs are left. If you don’t join an APM you have to demonstrate “quality” – and who gets to define that, under MACRA? the National “Quality” Foundation led by Christine Cassell, who just golden parachuted out of the lead spot at the ABIM. It is time for physicians to reclaim the doctor-patient relationship – including the documentation and payment – from all of the bureaucrats and bean counters out there, be they MDs or not.