‘We’re like your parents’: Medical colleges call for understanding over exam bungles

By Geir O'Rourke

4 Aug 2022

The RACP and other colleges are not necessarily responsible when their exams suffer IT disruptions and don’t deserve the public criticism they receive when things go wrong, the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges chair says.

In a blunt speech on Friday, Dr Vijay Roach also argued that language about “botched exams” was “not helpful”, adding that colleges were doing their best to deliver assessments in difficult circumstances.

“I sometimes think of the college like my parents,” added Dr Roach, a past president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).

“They’re very annoying. They can’t manage technology. I feel like I have to sort everything out for them.”

“But every now and then I pause and acknowledge their wisdom … understanding my own limitations and I’m grateful for them. A little less arrogant and a little less critical.”

Dr Roach’s speech at the AMA national conference in Sydney follows a string of exam failures in recent years, with the RACP twice being forced to re-sit its written assessments due to IT malfunctions.

A number of other colleges have also faced issues, disrupting training for GPs, psychiatrists and rural generalist doctors (see list below for examples).

Following the latest RACP exam bungle in February – affecting over 100 trainees – the AMA issued a public statement demanding the colleges improve their standards.

“The AMA is calling on the Specialist Medical Colleges to learn from past experiences, share successes and failures, and work collaboratively to improve education and training to ensure this does not continue to be a regular occurrence,” the AMA said.

“In this third year of the pandemic, it is hard to see why robust contingency plans for disruptions to examinations and progression through training are still not in place and communicated to trainees sitting examinations.”

But Dr Roach, who became chair of the council of medical colleges’ peak body last year, rejected the criticism.

“[College staff] have had to respond to an unprecedented challenge,” Dr Roach said.

“Many of the so-called failures were due to external providers, internet outages, and insufficient staff. I don’t say that in a defensive way, but more to recognise that for colleges as institutions, this was a particularly difficult time.”

It was also “easy for external stakeholders”, who didn’t run their own exams to criticise from the sidelines, he said, although he did say most colleges had run successful exams online.

“Colleges are flawed institutions and we should be held account… But – and maybe it sounds too soft – I think we should wind back some of the rhetoric and speak with kindness and understanding.”

Specialist college exam failures

February 2018 – Widespread catastrophic IT issues trigger the shutdown of the RACP’s computer-based Basic Training Written Divisional Exam, forcing around 1,200 to re-sit a paper-based test. The college blames issues with the exam provider Pearson Vue.

September 2020 – An IT glitch occurs part way through the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine’s Multiple Choice Questionnaire. As a result, 53 registrars are required to do a re-sit.

October 2020 – IT issues during the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP)’s first ever online Key Feature Problem (KFP) written exam spark its cancellation, along with that of the Applied Knowledge Test (AKT), the following day. It later emerges that potential problems with the online format had been identified in a trial the previous month.

November 2021 – Technical issues disrupt a computer-based OSCE held by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). More than 200 trainees are unable to complete the test as a result of the failure, which the college says it is still investigation.

Feb 2022 – The RACP again experiences technical issues with its Written Divisional Exam, affecting 120 of the 1150 who sat the computer-based test. The college offers a re-sit the following month.

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