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USMLE review focuses on patient individuality

Posted: November 26, 2019

Mitigating bias and eliminating unjustified patient stereotypes are important initiatives in teaching, learning and assessment. Concerns about bias have been raised in the academic literature, the media, among students and faculty at schools of medicine, and by patients.

The USMLE program remains cognizant of these topics. Characteristics of a patient such as age, sex, gender identity, and occupation are sometimes mentioned within the case vignettes in test items. Some patient characteristics may be important inputs into the diagnostic reasoning process. Others may lead to incorrect conclusions and misdiagnoses. Among the latter are characteristics associated with harmful patient stereotypes.

The USMLE program treats race as a social construct not linked to biology or susceptibility to disease. This is similarly true of ethnicity and “culture” or heritage. Ancestry, if known, may be biologically important, and thus may be relevant to factors relating to health and disease. In addition, when and if these characteristics are to be considered they should be considered on the basis of patient self-report, not the assumption of a health care provider. The USMLE program views patients as individuals, just as medical practice should and does. 

Accurate diagnosis is the goal

Test items and cases on USMLE exams are carefully designed to measure accurate diagnosis, not assumptions, bias, or stereotypes. When examinees select the correct diagnosis, they are given credit because they are demonstrating what the examination item is designed to measure.

The USMLE assessments have evolved significantly since their introduction in 1992, thanks to the more than 400 volunteers who contribute to USMLE each year. The individual faculty members and clinicians who write USMLE test items and cases today follow guidelines that encourage thoughtful consideration of patient characteristics, while at the same time striving to promote diversity and present patients that reflect the US population. 

Ongoing test item review

The USMLE program is reviewing the entirety of its exam content to eliminate questions and cases that may reflect biases or perpetuate stereotypes. We are committed to this thorough review as part of the shared goal of eliminating the biases in clinical practice and the disparities in healthcare access and health outcomes experienced by vulnerable populations. Given the scope of the USMLE’s item and case pool, this full review is ongoing and will take some time, likely 3 to 4 years. 

In the meantime, the end-of examination survey for each computer-based Step examination seeks examinee feedback on whether any patient or physician portrayals in the test promoted stereotypes in medicine. We will track survey responses to this question as a critical part of our review process. Examinees will also begin to notice that certain characteristics, specifically those that relate to social factors such as race, ethnicity, and heritage, if presented within a test item, will be described as self-reported by the patient. The USMLE program intends to share annual updates on progress.

These are important issues for all of us in healthcare as well as in health professions education and assessment. We look forward to completing this work and to continuing our ongoing collaborations with others in the house of medicine in support of equity and outstanding patient care.


USMLE program announces upcoming policy changes

Posted: February 12, 2020

Today, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners® (NBME®), co-sponsors of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®), announced upcoming policy changes to the USMLE program.

These new policies will continue to enable the USMLE program to provide high-quality assessments for the primary user of exam results (state medical boards) while also addressing other considerations, such as exam security and unintended consequences of secondary score uses. The secondary uses of Step 1 scores for residency screening, in particular, have been the focus of extensive discussion over the past year at the FSMB and NBME, within the USMLE program, and with multiple stakeholders within the broader medical education and regulatory communities.

“These new policies strengthen the integrity of the USMLE and address concerns about Step 1 scores impacting student well-being and medical education,” said Humayun Chaudhry, DO, MACP, President and CEO of the FSMB. “Although the primary purpose of the exam is to assess the knowledge and skills essential to safe patient care, it is important that we improve the transition from undergraduate to graduate medical education.”

“The USMLE program governance carefully considered input from multiple sources in coming to these decisions. Recognizing the complexity of the environment and the desire for improvement, continuation of the status quo was not the best way forward,” reported Peter Katsufrakis, MD, MBA, President and CEO of NBME. “Both program governance and staff believe these changes represent improvements to the USMLE program and create the environment for improved student experiences in their education and their transition to residency."

These policy changes are currently planned to be phased in over the next 11-24 months. For specific information on each policy, consult the links above to the detailed statements accompanying each policy change. A podcast supplementing the information contained in this announcement is below.


Potential impact of coronavirus on USMLE examination administrations

Posted: January 30, 2020

The USMLE program continues to monitor the outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China and is prepared to take appropriate measures as warranted to protect the health and safety of examinees and the public.

Whenever an examinee has a scheduled testing appointment, it is important to monitor the impact of illness, weather, or other conditions on USMLE administrations by going to the Prometric website (for Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3 exams) and the CSEC website (for Step 2 Clinical Skills exams) for updates. Test centers may close at any time. 

If you have been impacted by a test center closure related to the corona virus and need assistance with rescheduling your examination, please contact your registration entity.

It is also always important to monitor your own health. If you do not feel well on the day of your test, we strongly encourage you to reschedule your examination. If you become ill while taking any USMLE exam, inform a proctor promptly.

Please check the USMLE website for updates on the potential impact of coronavirus on USMLE administrations.


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