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The ABIM Controversy: A Brief History of Board Certification and MOC

Bob WachterWhat’s up with the ABIM?” “I just got a note about an alternative board. Should I join it?” “Aren’t you glad to be off the Board?”

These days, I get these questions from friends and colleagues regularly. When I first joined the board of directors of the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) in 2004, the organization was a well-respected pillar of American medicine. Today the organization finds itself in a fight for its life, being painted as everything from out of touch to money-hungry to, more recently, corrupt.

I just completed my decade-long service to the ABIM and, more recently, the ABIM Foundation. I’ve waited until now to write this because I wanted to be clear that I am not speaking for ABIM or its leadership. I am also well aware that there is a vocal group of critics who feel passionately about this matter, whose minds are made up, and who are approaching this fight with a take-no-prisoners zeal. By adding my voice, I am likely to become a target for their anger.

So be it. With the help of social media and a journalist who has turned this matter into a cause célèbre with an unfortunate mixture of half-truths and innuendo, the critics have managed to control the debate, and people who believe in the values of the Board have been cowed into silence. It feels vaguely McCarthyish, and there comes a time when silence is immoral. This feels like such a time.Continue reading…

A Time of Change at the American Board of Internal Medicine

Yesterday was my last day as chair of the ABIM, and the end of my eight-year tenure on the Board. In this blog – a bookend to the one I wrote at the start of the year, which went near-viral – I’ll describe some of our accomplishments this year and a few of the challenges that I leave my talented successors to grapple with.

I had two very tangible tasks to accomplish during my chairmanship. First, after a decade-long tenure as CEO and President of ABIM, Chris Cassel announced her intention to step down. (Chris is now CEO of the National Quality Forum, which is increasingly crucial in a world looking for robust measures of quality, safety, and value.) After an extensive search, we selected Richard Baron to become ABIM’s new CEO, and Rich began earlier this month. Rich is one of the most impressive people I’ve met in healthcare, and a perfect choice to lead ABIM into the future. As someone who practiced general internal medicine for nearly three decades in a mid-sized Philadelphia office, he is a “doctor’s doctor.”

He is intimately familiar with the work of the Board, having served on the boards of both ABIM and the ABIM Foundation for over a decade (including a year as ABIM chair). He also has extensive policy experience, most recently as director for Seamless Care Models for the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), where he was responsible for putting meat on the bones of concepts like the “Medical Home” and “Accountable Care Organization.” Rich is wickedly smart, a superb communicator, and a great listener with impeccable values and an unerring ethical compass. He’ll be splendid.

The second area may be a bit more Inside Baseball, but will ultimately be just as important. A couple of years ago, we began a process to redesign the ABIM’s governance. Our 28-person board was both too large and had too much on its plate for effective decision making. In work that was superbly led by then-chair Catherine Lucey, assisted by a crack committee, staff and governance expert Jamie Orlikoff, we decided to transform our governance structure. As of tomorrow, the ABIM board shrinks to 15 members – chosen for their experiences and competencies rather than because they represent a given medical subspecialty – and a new group, the ABIM Council, is formed.Continue reading…

Measuring the Quality of Hospitals and Doctors: When Is Good Good Enough?

In the past, neither hospitals nor practicing physicians were accustomed to being measured and judged. Aside from periodic inspections by the Joint Commission (for which they had years of notice and on which failures were rare), hospitals did not publicly report their quality data, and payment was based on volume, not performance.

Physicians endured an orgy of judgment during their formative years – in high school, college, medical school, and in residency and fellowship. But then it stopped, or at least it used to. At the tender age of 29 and having passed “the boards,” I remember the feeling of relief knowing that my professional work would never again be subject to the judgment of others.

In the past few years, all of that has changed, as society has found our healthcare “product” wanting and determined that the best way to spark improvement is to measure us, to report the measures publicly, and to pay differentially based on these measures. The strategy is sound, even if the measures are often not.

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The Letterman Approach to Cost Awareness

Who doesn’t love a Top 10 list? Creating them is an art form.  So when it was formally proposed by Dr. Brody in 2010 in the NEJM that each specialty create their own “Top 5 list” of unnecessary care, it seemed like a straightforward – if not downright provocative – suggestion.

“The Top Five list would consist of five diagnostic tests or treatments that are very commonly ordered by members of that specialty, that are among the most expensive services provided, and that have been shown by the currently available evidence not to provide any meaningful benefit to at least some major categories of patients for whom they are commonly ordered. In short, the Top Five list would be a prescription for how, within that specialty, the most money could be saved most quickly without depriving any patient of meaningful medical benefit,” he wrote.

And yet, thus far the only groups that have seemed to have taken him up on the suggestion have been the primary care specialties of Internal Medicine, Family Medicine and Pediatrics – notably amongst the least compensated fields in health care.

This is a great start, but c’mon guys, where are the rest of you? Dr. Brody wrote you a “prescription.” We have a term for your behavior: “noncompliance.”

Not to say that there hasn’t been some progress. The ABIM Foundation has indeed put together an impressive list of organizations participating in their “Choosing Wisely” campaign. They also have begun to be instrumental in funding projects towards this goal. Costs of Care has highlighted far-reaching areas of non-value-based care, including a recent thoughtful essay about robotic surgery. We must now consolidate on these small gains and move this forward across all specialties in medicine.

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