We consistently advise consumers to select physicians who are “board certified,” and we report on board certification status in our Ratings Tables. What does board certification mean, and why is it important?

In the U.S., there are 24 medical specialty boards, such as, the American Board of Thoracic Surgery and the American Board of Internal Medicine. These boards certify physicians in various specialties and subspecialties. For instance, the American Board of Internal Medicine certifies physicians in the specialty of internal medicine and in 18 subspecialties and areas of special qualifications—including cardiovascular disease, gastroenterology, geriatrics, and hematology.

To become certified, a physician must spend several years-in some cases, more than six years—after medical school getting supervised, in-practice training.

In addition, all specialty boards require passage of a written exam, completed without assistance, usually administered interactively by computer in a secure testing facility. Some specialties also require an oral exam. The exams are intended to assess medical knowledge and clinical judgment.

Until 1970, all specialty boards issued non-expiring certifications. At that time, the family practice board began issuing time-limited certifications. Over the following 30-plus years, other boards began issuing time-limited certifications, and now all boards issue only time-limited certifications. The certifications generally last for 10 years, but a few boards’ certificates are for just six or seven years.

Doctors whose certificates are time-limited must successfully complete re-certification requirements or they can’t call themselves board-certified. The requirements for re-certification, like the requirements for initial certification, include an unassisted written (computer-administered) exam, intended to measure clinical knowledge and judgment.

Since the individual specialty boards develop their own exams for certification and re-certification, the validity of the exams as measures of physician competence varies by board. On the exam for re-certification in general internal medicine, the largest specialty, the pass rate in a recent period of years ranged from 85 to 92 percent; the rates in other specialties may be higher or lower.

In the good exams, a test-taker is confronted with real-life situations where knowledge of current medical guidelines, along with good judgment, can be expected to lead to correct answers. Here is the type of case you might find on an exam: a 22-year-old male college student came to the doctor’s office after fainting for less than a minute during wrestling practice; the patient had suffered previous episodes of lightheadedness and at age 10 was diagnosed with a heart murmur. The test-taker is given the results of several in-office examinations. Then the test-taker is expected to make a diagnosis.

In 1999, all of the specialty boards agreed to move beyond re-certification based on passing a test of knowledge and judgment to a program of “ABMS Maintenance of Certification®.” The policy is that “maintenance of competence should be demonstrated throughout the physician’s career by evidence of lifelong learning and ongoing improvement of practice.” Each board is implementing this policy in its own way, but all are committed to a program that requires that the physician—

Maintain a license in good standing with state licensing boards. If a physician has had his or her license revoked, the physician cannot participate in Maintenance of Certification, and having a license suspended, put on probation, or otherwise restricted might also disqualify a physician from participation.

Periodically do surveys of patients and of peers. This requirement took effect in 2010 for surveys of patients using a questionnaire that measures physician-patient communication, and will took effect in 2012 for surveys of peers, measuring communication skills and professionalism.

Periodically show evidence of knowledge and judgment, typically by passing the same types of unassisted, written (computer-administered) exams that have been the basis for certification for many years.

Show evidence of a commitment to lifelong learning and involvement in a periodic self-assessment process, targeted in particular on new developments in the physician’s specialty field. Physicians can complete appropriate continuing education courses, and some boards have identified or created learning materials and computer- based interactive tools that a physician can use to learn about the newest developments in his or her field. The physician is expected to self-administer tests to identify knowledge gaps. One element of this requirement in coming years will be for the physician periodically to complete a patient safety self-assessment program.

Periodically show evidence of self-evaluation of performance in practice. For example, with the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), a physician might meet this requirement for a period by pulling data from case records for patients with a specific condition like diabetes or asthma, submitting the data to the board for evaluation, getting back from the board a report comparing the physician’s practice patterns to national guidelines, developing a plan for improvements, and then measuring whether the improvements have worked. Through this process, a physician might discover, for instance, that he or she has information on LDL cholesterol results for too few diabetes patients and this awareness might prompt the physician to take steps to do better. Another example of a target for self-evaluation might be physician-patient communication; a physician might do surveys of patients, use the results to guide quality improvement, and then re-survey to assess the extent of improvement.

Except for the written tests of knowledge and judgment for time-limited certifications, Maintenance of Certification is not dependent on the results—the scores—from assessment activities. It is enough that the physician does the self-assessments, develops plans for improvements, and assesses the extent of improvement—regardless of how bad or good the physician looks in the assessments.

You can check whether any physician you are considering is board certified by checking the website of the American Board of Medical Specialties, the umbrella organization for the 24 individual specialty boards. If the physician you are considering is not board certified, he or she will not be listed. In the near future, you will also be able to check whether a physician you are considering is participating in ongoing Maintenance of Certification.

So, what useful information do the board certification system and ongoing Maintenance of Certification program provide you?

Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, it is hard to see why you would choose a physician who is not board certified. But be aware that board certification is not a very discriminating measure. About 87 percent of physicians in the U.S. are certified.

Knowing how recently a physician has been certified or re-certified is important, since there is substantial evidence that physician performance gets worse over time. A 2005 article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed 62 studies that had examined the relationship between age or time in practice and various measures of quality-physician knowledge, adherence to recognized care guidelines, and medical outcomes. Of these studies, 45 reported decreasing performance on some or all quality measures over time, and only two reported improved performance.

Physicians who were certified for life can if they wish seek voluntary re-certification, but not many have done so. Those who don’t point to the cost, the time required, the risk of failure, and other factors. For the relatively few physicians who have voluntarily become re-certified despite having a life-long certification, that diligence and self-scrutiny may be a meaningful indicator of quality.

It would be desirable for the specialty boards to create and advertise a concept like “recently certified” or “certification updated” so consumers could easily distinguish physicians whose certification status is based only on having been certified for life from those who are actively engaged in self-assessment and practice improvement. Unfortunately, on the American Board of Medical Specialties website, the information that is available free to the public doesn’t indicate when a physician was certified or tell whether a physician who had lifetime certification has voluntarily become re-certified. Some of the individual specialty boards do provide that information on their websites, but some provide virtually no consumer information. It would be desirable for the ABMS and all of the individual boards to have the information on their websites.

Participation in an ongoing Maintenance of Certification program is evidence that a physician is taking extra steps beyond getting initial certification to continue to keep up-to-date and improve. The planned reporting of participation information by the ABMS is an important step. This participation in Maintenance of Certification is especially important for physicians who got their initial certifications before certification became time-limited since these physicians do not have to take any self-improvement steps merely to remain board certified, but participation in Maintenance of Certification proves that they are in fact taking such steps and that they are passing exams and meeting other standards.

Are there additional types of comparative information specialty boards could provide consumers on individual physicians? Possibly.

First, it might be possible in the future for the boards to release to the public physicians’ scores on the written exams of knowledge and judgment—at least information like “top 10 percent,” “top 25 percent,” or “top half.” The boards can’t unilaterally begin to report data that they have historically promised physicians would be kept confidential. But changes in confidentiality policies might be possible in the future. And even in the near term, the boards might consider releasing scores for physicians who give permission for such release. Disclosure of test scores would certainly put physicians out ahead of most professionals; it is not common to have one’s personal test scores made public. But the advantage of releasing these scores is that they can be expected to reflect on aspects of quality that other measures of physician performance may miss.

Second, the boards might consider, for the future, working with physician leaders to change the self-assessment process into a process that has the combined purpose of self-assessment and public assessment. There are already various efforts underway—led by government agencies, health plans, employers, and consumer organizations—to increase public reporting of physician quality measures—for instance, measures from medical records showing whether a physician consistently gives all the appropriate tests and treatments to diabetes patients, or measures from patient surveys of how well the physician communicates. Some of the specialty boards are involved in these public measurement efforts, but more might be done to use the same data and analyses for public reporting and physician self-improvement purposes. The specialty boards have said that such public reporting is planned for the future at least for results of surveys of patients.

If measures are to be useful for public reporting, they will have to be standardized and independently collected. Currently a physician can self-select the diabetes cases he or she abstracts for the specialty board and can even cherry-pick to look good, or might decide to survey only patients who are likely to give good reports. There is not much harm in that when the data are being used only for self-assessment; worst case, when the physician gets a performance report back from the board, he or she might simply say, “Wow, I did that badly even though I was cheating.”

For public reporting, the system has to be free of potential manipulation or bias. For clinical measures, the specialty boards would have to work with health plans, Medicare, and others to develop systems to collect data from medical records or claims records, for example. And for patient and peer survey measures, it will be important for the boards to use a nationwide standardized patient survey and standardized, audited process for selecting the persons to survey—so that the resulting measures can be used not only for physician practice improvement but also for public reporting. Having forward-thinking specialty boards involved in the development of measures might help to move the measurement process forward and to ensure that measures are well designed.

Public reporting of standardized measures would not only help you choose good physicians, but also would enable health plans to reward high-rated physicians and would facilitate public and peer recognition of top performers. All that might reinforce incentives for the kind of physician quality that is the mission of the specialty boards.

If the boards don’t get actively involved in public reporting efforts, however, it is still important to remember that what is being done, and the progress that has been made toward continuing Maintenance of Certification, is important. Even without more public reporting, board certification provides tools for quality improvement, channels through which well-motivated physicians can fulfill a desire for professional improvement, and a way for each physician to demonstrate to patients and the public that he or she is committed to professional development.

It is important to realize that the commitment to professionalism and the desire to help others—not public scrutiny—have probably been the most important forces for quality in health care over the years. So fostering these motivations is a good thing.