ABMS establishes time limits for attaining board certification

New policy is intended to prevent abuse of the term "board eligible" by restricting how long physicians can wait before becoming certified in their specialty.

By — Posted March 5, 2012

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Physicians no longer have an indefinite amount of time to achieve board certification.

A new American Board of Medical Specialties rule requires doctors to be certified three to seven years after completing residency training. Time limits will vary by specialty, with each of the ABMS 24 member boards to set policy by April 16.

The goal is to prevent confusion about the term "board eligible," said ABMS President and CEO Kevin B. Weiss, MD, MPH. ABMS and its member boards have never recognized the term. However, credentialing organizations have used it for decades to identify physicians who are becoming certified.

Problems arise when physicians use the phrase to describe themselves when they are not actively pursuing board certification, Dr. Weiss said.

"There are a very small number of physicians who will maintain the status of board eligible for an extraordinarily long amount of time," said Daniel L. Barrow, MD, chair of the American Board of Neurological Surgery. "It is dishonest, and it sends the wrong message to the public."

Physicians who abuse the term do it to create the impression that they have equivalent status -- or near-equivalent status -- to board-certified physicians, said James C. Puffer, MD, president and CEO of the American Board of Family Medicine.

On Feb. 7, ABMS announced the policy, which is retroactive to Jan. 1. Until now, the period between training and board certification was undefined, Dr. Weiss said. "This is to make it very clear to hospitals, health plans and other credentialers what is happening to that physician between completion of training and board certification," he added.

Keeping doctors current

Some specialty boards have developed their own policies. The ABFM board of directors voted in October 2011 to define board eligibility as the first seven years after residency training or loss of certification. To be board eligible, physicians must maintain a full, unrestricted medical license and meet ongoing requirements to sit for the board exam.

Most family physicians are certified within three years of completing residency, Dr. Puffer said. If they aren't certified after seven years, they must complete at least one more year of a family medicine residency.

Those seeking certification in neurosurgery will have seven years, said Dr. Barrow, MBNA/Bowman Professor and chair of the Dept. of Neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Surgeons who don't meet the time restrictions must restart certification, which includes retaking the board's written exam and submitting 150 operative cases.

Across all specialties, physicians who have already begun the certification process will have to complete it between 2015 and 2019, Dr. Weiss said. Member boards also will determine how to sanction physicians who claim board eligibility past the time limits.

The new policy will allow physicians who have completed residency training but not yet taken the certification exam to show they are becoming certified, said William Iobst, MD, the American Board of Internal Medicine's vice president of academic affairs. At the same time, the policy will protect patients by reducing the chances that someone will misrepresent their credentials and practice beyond their expertise.

The American Board of Surgery supports the time limits to ensure that doctors remain current in their training, said Jo Buyske, MD, the board's associate executive director.

"Surgery is an ever-evolving field, and after too many years out of training, it is reasonable to believe that a surgeon may not be fully up to speed with the standard of care," she said.

"The time limits benefit patients by offering a clear delineation of those who have met the rigorous requirements of board certification and those who have not."

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External links

American Board of Medical Specialties board eligibility fact sheet (link)

ABMS board eligibility policy, adopted Sept. 21, 2011 (link)

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