Dr. Joseph Sirven: Doctors Have Expiration Dates, Too

Published: Monday, February 22, 2016 - 9:32am
Updated: Monday, February 22, 2016 - 9:41pm
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Dr. Joseph Sirven
Dr. Joseph Sirven

Like shelf life labels on food, doctors also have an expiration date for their knowledge. Our medical commentator Dr. Joseph Sirven explains:


“I need you to hand me your wallet, your cell phone, watch, and I have to pat you down for any items in your pocket.” 

I turn over my items. 

“Now sir, let me take your picture, your palm print, and I’ll escort you to a secure room where you’ll be videotaped during the five hours you’ll spend with us this morning.”

I’m on a bathroom break at my board recertification exam at a testing center in Chandler and those over-the-top security measures I went through are to make sure I don’t cheat. This exam is no small matter because passing it allows me to maintain my certification status, which in turn allows me to practice medicine—it’s a high-stakes test.

The concept of recertifying doctors has been mandated by all national medical specialty boards since 1990. Before then, all doctors had lifetime certification— you only took a test once in your career.

The problem is that many specialty boards grandfathered some of the older physicians into lifetime certification, leaving younger doctors to the pleasure of the exam every decade. Controversy over this issue recently erupted with some medical specialty boards completely doing away with the recertification examination as a result of pressure from doctors who’d had enough.

Medical recertification is not an ‘inside medicine’ problem. Rather it’s a patient safety issue. Board certification is meant to be a doctor’s seal of competency. Just like food expiration dates, time limited board recertification means that we have met a freshness standard— that we are up to date in a rapidly changing field.

Despite the stress in reviewing for and taking my exam, the test did force me to refresh my knowledge in my area of expertise, which is the point of the entire experience. This is also why all doctors should take such a test.

I'm now up to date in my specialty or should I say, I’ve been certified fresh…Is your doctor?

Dr. Sirven is the chairman of neurology at the Mayo Clinic.

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