Boards 'Nightmare': Proctors Take Personal Info, Exams on Hold

Marcia Frellick

July 20, 2020

The American Board of Surgery (ABS) canceled — at least for July — its qualifying exam (QE) for board certification in general surgery last week when delivering it virtually failed dramatically.

Some, if not all, students who took the test in the morning last Thursday finished the first 4-hour day of the 2-day test, but those taking it in the afternoon ran into technological roadblocks.

Before dawn on Friday, more than 1000 students learned that ABS was canceling the test for July. Some were told by friends in the middle of the night they would not be taking the test early the next morning. An announcement said ABS would "regroup and develop a new process."

ABS did not respond to Medscape's request for comment by publication time, but posted a statement, acknowledging that the situation "turned into a terrible nightmare for many, and we cannot stress enough how deeply apologetic we are."

"There is no way to sugarcoat it," ABS said in the statement on Friday, "and there is nothing that we, as an organization, can say right now to make those who were affected feel any better. We acknowledge that our failed attempt to deliver this exam has resulted in an incredible amount of stress for candidates. You are frustrated, angry and disappointed, and you have every reason to feel so."

Anger and frustration were evident on social media, with many saying that although ABS is refunding the test fees, it can't make up for the time and personal toll it took to prepare for the test.

"I Really Wanted It to Be Over"

Deviney Rattigan, MD, who recently completed her general surgery residency at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey, and is an incoming fellow in surgical critical care at Rutgers, was among those who completed the first day of the test Thursday morning only to be told early Friday the testing had been stopped.

She told Medscape Medical News she is still experiencing shock, and had studied all day, every day for a month.

"I've been taking tests my whole life," she said. "I really wanted it to be over."

At the beginning of the test her proctor told her via a chat box that she had an outdated link to the test and sent her a new one to download. She said that given the technical chaos with the tests and that the software had linked into her phone and the computer she was using — a relative's computer, not her own — she closed her bank accounts and changed all her passwords.

ABS said in the statement, "We are launching an investigation into the security concerns, beginning by immediately demanding that Verificient (the company verifying identities) delete all personal information and provide evidence that they have done so."

They also encouraged anyone who has experienced a security breach or has concerns to report them at virtualqe@absurgery.org.

News Came on Twitter

Most of the information ABS put out was on Twitter, Rattigan noted, and because she doesn't have an account, she was doubly frustrated that she couldn't get answers as to what will happen next.

As it stands now, applicants must take the qualifying exam before taking the oral certifying exam.

Some jobs allow starting while board eligible, but without definitive answers, people will head into their positions not knowing when or if the test will be reoffered and whether they will have to pay the $1850 to apply and register again.

Rattigan said she's not angry with ABS and acknowledges the enormity of challenges COVID-19 has posed for delivering the test safely. She said no solution will be fair to everyone.

"I don't think it's anyone's fault," she said. "It just sucks."

Call for Waiving Exam

A group of surgery residents started a Change.org petition and asked ABS to allow any graduate eligible to sit for the current exam to present written verification from program directors that he/she has demonstrated appropriate clinical knowledge to sit for the certifying exam (CE).

The group also asks that those who pass ABS CE then be given full board certification.

Among the points the group makes in the petition is that the qualifying exam has a high pass rate — in the high 90s on the first attempt so the burden of taking a new test is too high.

The residents also say in the petition that "the CE is the more rigorous test of competency, which also more closely recapitulates real-life surgical practice."

By midday Monday, more than 720 had signed.

Qualifying exam applications for specialties — vascular and pediatric surgery and complex general surgical oncology, as well as the application for the Surgical Critical Care Certifying Examination — are being accepted by electronic submission, ABS says on its website.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick

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