The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) recently announced 2 policy changes: shifting from numeric score reporting on the Step 1 examination to pass/fail reporting and limiting examinees to 4 attempts for each Step component. In light of these policies, exam measures other than scores, such as the number of examination attempts, are of interest. Attempt limit policies are intended to ensure minimum standards of physician competency, yet little research has explored how Step attempts relate to physician practice outcomes. This study examined the relationship between USMLE attempts and the likelihood of receiving disciplinary actions from state medical boards.
The sample population was 219,018 graduates from U.S. and Canadian MD-granting medical schools who passed all USMLE Step examinations by 2011 and obtained a medical license in the United States, using data from the NBME and the Federation of State Medical Boards. Logistic regressions estimated how attempts on Steps 1, 2 Clinical Knowledge (CK), and 3 examinations influenced the likelihood of receiving disciplinary actions by 2018, while accounting for physician characteristics.
A total of 3,399 physicians (2%) received at least 1 disciplinary action. Additional attempts needed to pass Steps 1, 2 CK, and 3 were associated with an increased likelihood of receiving disciplinary actions (odds ratio [OR]: 1.07, 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.01, 1.13; OR: 1.09, 95% CI: 1.03, 1.16; OR: 1.11, 95% CI: 1.04, 1.17, respectively), after accounting for other factors.
Physicians who took multiple attempts to pass Steps 1, 2 CK, and 3 were associated with higher estimated likelihood of receiving disciplinary actions. This study offers support for licensure and practice standards to account for physicians’ USMLE attempts. The relatively small effect sizes, however, caution policy makers from placing sole emphasis on this relationship.