Do Board Certifications Really Matter?

A friend recently asked me whether it matters if a physician is board certified in his or her specialty. For those of you who don’t know, the medical profession is governed by both a national and state medical board. In order to practice medicine, physicians must have a state license and a national certificate showing they have passed all the three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Once they are fully licensed general physicians, they typically obtain board certification in their specialty. Their specialty may be something broad, such as general family practice, internal medicine, or general surgery, or they may go on for further training to get subspecialty certification, such as in plastic surgery or cardiology. Essentially, at every step of their training, physicians need to pass an exam that says that they are competent according to national standards in that field. Board certification exists to ensure that there is a minimum standard practice among physicians in a specialty.

There are many physicians who do not have board certification in their specialty. This does not mean that they cannot practice medicine or their specialization. It may mean that they will have a difficult time gaining privileges at hospitals. It may also mean that the discerning patient may choose to go to someone who is more qualified. But, typically, it only matters if there is a complication or the patient is not satisfied with his or her outcome. If there is a lawsuit, it is likely that someone who practices a certain specialty without having the appropriate certification would be more exposed than someone who does have all the certifications.

One example of this is the notorious plastic surgeon on Dr. 90210, Dr. Robert Rey. I cannot confirm this, but I have read several articles that indicate he is not board certified, and he has been quoted as saying that he simply was too busy to get board certified. It does not surprise me that patients continue to flock to Dr. Rey for this services. Given his notoriety and fame from television, patients seeking a doctor to the stars will happily pay for his services.

From an economic point-of-view, this illustrates something very powerful in medicine – that reputation and business-savvy can trump qualifications. You do not have to be the best doctor or care provider in order to have a busy practice. It is well known in the medical community that, if you really want to find out whether a doctor or surgeon is good, you need to ask the key personnel who work with many doctors. For example, surgical scrub technicians know which surgeons have the best hands and the best intra-operative judgment. The average person watching Dr. 90210 does not know whether Dr. Rey is good or bad at what he does. He gains his reputation from the patients shown on television, his good looks, and the fact that he has his own TV show.

It makes me wonder why we have board certifications, after all, if the general public does not care much about it. Physicians in medicine seem to be chasing their tails getting more and more qualified, but perhaps this is all a futile endeavor.

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