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Medical Specialty Certifications Expiring for Many Doctors Posted: May 4th, 2010

By Rebecca Theim

Rebecca began her career as a daily newspaper reporter and also has worked in senior PR and communications roles.

For the first time since many doctors received their prestigious board certifications, they will be required to take exams and other evaluations to maintain the medical community's equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Although not required to become a licensed physician, doctors practicing in 147 medical specialties ranging from dermatology to oncology receive specialized training. Many go on to take examinations given by a board of experts that certify their knowledge in the field. Those who pass are recognized as "diplomates" within their medical specialty and are known as board-certified specialists.

Many Physicians are Board Certified

Of the country's 814,000 doctors, about 750,000 have been board-certified, according to statistics maintained by the American Medical Association and the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). This certification is considered an important quality marker by health insurance companies and health care organizations, and many health insurance carriers require it before referring policyholders to physicians.

Individuals interested in checking their doctor's board certification status may do so through the American Board of Specialties Web site. Although free, registration is required.

In the past, once many doctors were certified, they never had to renew their certification. But beginning in 1990, the ABMS and its member speciality organizations began issuing certifications that expired after 10 years. The organizations made exceptions for almost 70,000 doctors who were granted time-unlimited, "grandfathered" certification status.

Arguments For and Against Recertification

The topic has generated considerable debate in the medical community since the March 11, 2010 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine featured dueling essays by doctors on the pros and cons of medical recertification.

The physician authors supporting board recertification cited survey data confirming, "What physicians think they know and do in practice does not match what they actually know and do," the essay says. On the other side of the argument, doctors opposed to recertification said the test primarily assesses physicians' rote memorization of information rather than their quick access and expert evaluation of available information, and takes time and money better spent elsewhere.

In arguing in favor of certification, the president and CEO of the American Board of Internal Medicine said the process of recertifying is for the public. "Board certification and Maintenance of Certification is a marker for the public to know that their physician has met a standard in a particular subspecialty of care," Dr. Christine Cassel wrote in a blog post on MedPagesToday's KevinMD.com.