Physician maintenance of certification's big benefit: Avoiding board disciplinary action

Doctor pausing with a frown on his face
Doctors who pass an MOC exam within 10 years of initial board certification are less likely to face disciplinary action by a state medical board, a new study finds. (Getty/Wavebreakmedia)

There's a big benefit to passing a maintenance of certification (MOC) exam: a lower likelihood of getting hit with a state medical board disciplinary action.

In fact, doctors who practice internal medicine and pass a test to maintain board certification within 10 years of their initial certification are more than two times less likely to face state medical board disciplinary actions than those who do not pass the exam, according to a new study conducted by researchers for the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM).

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ABIM is one of the 24 medical specialty boards that make up the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and work together to establish common standards for physicians to achieve and maintain board certification. Results of the study were published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The researchers looked at 47,971 internists who initially certified in internal medicine as their specialty from 1990 through 2003 and examined reported disciplinary actions. They found the risk for discipline among physicians who did not pass the MOC examination within the 10-year requirement window to maintain certification was more than double than that of those doctors who did pass the exam.

The study found that about 2% of the doctors in the study, or 949 physicians, were disciplined during the study period.

Disciplinary actions did not vary by state continuing medical education requirements but did decline with better MOC exam scores, the researchers said. Among disciplined physicians, the actions were less severe among those passing the MOC exam within 10 years of initial certification than among those who did not pass the exam.

Researchers estimated that the number of patients potentially cared for by physicians with disciplinary actions could total hundreds of thousands to a few million.

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“These findings have significant implications for a vast number of patients seeking safe, quality care from general internists,” said Furman McDonald, M.D., senior vice president of academic and medical affairs at ABIM and the lead author of the study, in an association announcement.  

“Though most internists will never face disciplinary actions, the study revealed an important association between medical knowledge as demonstrated on the MOC exam and lower risk of disciplinary actions. This adds to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that MOC is an important factor that can inform the public's choice of physicians.”

The study concluded that the findings are an important quality indicator that's relevant to both patients and the medical profession.

The researchers said the fact that some have questioned whether performance in the ABIM MOC program is meaningful prompted the study. The ABIM said the recent study builds on previous research that found doctors who pass initial certification exams after medical training are five times less likely to face disciplinary actions than doctors who do not become board certified.

RELATED: Doctors unified in their fight over Maintenance of Certification

The ABMS has faced a backlash from physicians over its tougher requirements and costs of MOC. However, maintaining board certification is worth the time and money for physicians, Richard Baron, M.D., of the ABIM has said.

The ABMS and its member boards last fall announced the establishment of a commission that will include multiple partners to reevaluate the MOC system.