Major Changes in the American Board of Dermatology’s Certification Examination

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Older dermatologists may recall (or may have expunged from memory) taking the American Board of Dermatology (ABD) certification examination at the Holiday Inn in Rosemont, Illinois. I remember schlepping a borrowed microscope from Denver, Colorado; penciling in answers to questions about slides projected on a screen; and having a proctor escort me to the bathroom. On the flight home, the pilot kept my microscope in the cockpit for safekeeping.

Much has changed since then. Today’s examination takes 1 day instead of 2, is in July instead of October, and airline security would never allow me to stow a microscope in the pilot’s cabin. The content of the examination also has evolved. No longer does one have to identify yeasts and fungi in culture—a subject I spotted the ABD and hoped for the best—and surgery is a much more prominent part of the examination.

Nevertheless, over the years the examination continued to emphasize book knowledge and visual pattern recognition. Although they are essential components of being an effective dermatologist, there are other important factors. Many of these can be classified under the term clinical judgment, the ability to make good decisions that take into account the individual patient and situation.

In 2013, the ABD Board of Directors began the process of making fundamental changes in the certification examination with the goal of making it a better test of clinical competence. The process has included matters such as finding the correct technical consultant for examination development and psychometrics, writing and vetting new types of questions, gathering input from program directors, and building the electronic infrastructure to support these changes.

The structure of the new examination is based on a natural progression of learning, from mastering the basics, to acquiring more advanced knowledge, to applying that knowledge in clinical situations. It consists of the following:

  • BASIC Exam, a test of fundamentals obtained during the first year of dermatology residency
  • CORE Exam, a modular examination emphasizing the more comprehensive knowledge base obtained during the second and third years of residency
  • APPLIED Exam, a case-based examination testing ability to apply knowledge appropriately in clinical situations

These new examinations will replace the In-Training Exam and the current certification examination, beginning with the cohort of residents entering dermatology training in July 2017.

The BASIC Exam is designed to test fundamentals such as visual recognition of common diseases, management of uncomplicated conditions, and familiarity with standard procedures. The purposes of the examination are to measure progress, to identify residents who are having difficulty, and to ensure that residents actually master the basics that we sometimes take for granted that they know. It is not a pass/fail examination and thus technically is not part of certification. A detailed content outline for the BASIC Exam can be found on the ABD website.1 Because it is a new examination, it is anticipated that the content will be modified as we gain experience with it and obtain feedback from program directors as to how its usefulness may be improved.

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Update on Coding Changes: Report From the Mount Sinai Fall Symposium

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