Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | July 26, 2008


I took Boards for the fourth time today; my third re-certification of Family Medicine Boards.

Our Board certification is good for seven years, although most people take the exam after six years in order to be safe. This was the first time I let it go for the full seven years, which means I first certified 19 years ago, when my baby was two months old. He is now about to start his second year of college.

What I remember most fondly about the initial certification exam was the pencils. They were lovely, sturdy white #2 pencils with the words “AMERICAN BOARD OF FAMILY MEDICINE” emblazoned in a gorgeous shade of green. We received two of them for the full-day exam, and we got to keep them; my $350 pencils ($175 each, of course.)

Six years later, I again reported to a downtown hotel ballroom with several hundred other FPs to take my first re-certification exam. This time, though, the pencils they gave out were the regular, grungy old yellow ones — sharpened to a tiny little point, like a golf pencil! No way these were going to make it through an entire day of testing! Except that close on the heels of the lady checking IDs and handing out pencils was another person carrying a large plastic bag. As he stepped in front of me, he reached into it and extracted — I kid you not! — a small, white, plastic, birthday-party-favor-style pencil sharpener (that actually worked pretty well.) The best part of the day came when the head proctor was reading us the instructions and came to this line:

No test materials may be taken from the room.

At this point she stopped, looked up and added sheepishly:

You can keep the pencil sharpeners.

And that is the story of my $500 pencil sharpener.

Fast forward another six years, and it was time to do it again. I found myself wondering what the pencil situation was going to be. I wasn’t disappointed: this time we were each handed a spiffy pink mechanical pencil, complete with extra leads and erasers tucked away in its little hidden storage compartment. The more memorable thing about that day, though, was the occupants of the ballroom on the other side of the foyer from ours, where there was an official Ballroom Dancing Competition. Watching the dancers warm up and practice in the foyer, the women resembling life-size Barbie dolls and the men in their stylized tuxedos as they glided and spun around the room at full speed, was amazing. Several of us taking the re-certification exam agreed we would far rather be in the other ballroom. But I did get to keep my $850 mechanical pencil.

That was seven years ago. Times have changed. Prices have gone up. More importantly, the ABFM has moved away not only from the paper-and-pencil format, but also from the hundreds-of-docs-gathered-in-a-ballroom venue. Instead, the exam is administered on a computer (of all things!) at multiple contracted testing sites on multiple dates. Amazing! You register online, pay $1,150 by credit card, and show up at a suburban office building on a Saturday morning where you are surrounded by people taking all kinds of other tests.

I’d been warned in advance that no pens, pencils or papers were allowed in the testing room. We were told that we’d be given white boards which we could use for any calculations or notes we wanted to make during the exam, but that all materials would have to be returned at the end of the test.

The exam followed along the lines of my recollections of the others pretty well. Questions ranged in difficulty from, “Are you kidding me?” (ie, I learned that in high school) to “Not a f***ing clue!” I’ve always been fortunate enough to test well, so although I went through each question as slowly and deliberately as I could, I was still done with the entire exam (scheduled to last eight hours) in five hours. That included scheduled breaks. Of course the other nice feature of the individualized computer experience was that the breaks were optional. Instead of having to sit around for over an hour waiting until the lunch break was over and the afternoon session could start, I just went out and stretched my legs, then plunged back into it.

And here’s the best part: I told the above pencil stories to the folks monitoring the exam, and they were so amused that they let me keep the dry-erase pens (2 of them!) they’d given me for the white board (which was actually a yellow sheet of laminated paper with the facility’s name on it.)

So I am now the proud owner of a pair of dry-erase markers that only cost $575 apiece. I’ll find out in 6-8 weeks whether I will also be the recipient of a nifty engraved certificate that doesn’t expire until 2015. I wonder what the exam will be like by then.


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