I know that I have been gone for a while. Sorry about that...I saw a really interesting article in Advances in Health Sciences Education (1) this month. The authors decided to study the career outcomes of graduates of six Midwestern medical schools who had initially failed USMLE Step 1. In this retrospective study, the authors sought to determine the academic and professional career outcomes of medical school graduates who failed Step 1 on the first attempt. They took a cohort of students who graduated from the Ohio State University College of Medicine, Michigan State University College of Human Medicine , Washington University School of Medicine, SouthernIllinois University School of Medicine, University ofIowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, and the University of Michigan School of Medicine. In this cohort of 2,003 graduates from 1997-2002 were 50 (2.5%) students who initially failed Step 1 and these students were compared to the 1,953 students who passed Step 1 on the first attempt.
There were several interesting findings in this study. The authors used information from the MSQ (Medical Student Questionnaire), the GQ (Graduate Questionnaire), the AMA Physician Masterfile, ABMS Board certification, and the AAMC Faculty Roster System. Data was gathered from all six schools and merged into a single database. Some of this data has issues, for example the MSQ and the GQ both rely on student self-report. The AMA Masterfile may mis-categorize some doctors and the cohort only includes students who made it to graduation and for whom they had complete data available (about 43% of the total graduates). But with that being said, this is a pretty good study with a large cohort of graduates.So, what did they find? As you would guess, passing USMLE Step 1 on the first attempt has major repercussions for medical students. Most students (94%) pass the test, but not all. Students who fail Step 1 are less likely to pass Step 2 and less likely to ultimately graduate from medical school. (2) But this group of students had all graduated so are they still impacted? There is not a lot of evidence that medical school test performance is correlated to residency clinical performance, but Program Directors still put too much emphasis on Step 1. In fact, a national survey of Program Directors (3) found that 84% would seldom or never interview a student who had failed Step 1 even if they eventually passed Step 1.
In this study, those who failed were more likely to be women, minorities, and older. In fact, there were significant differences between these groups. When compared to men who graduated, women were 3.2 times more likely to have failed Step 1 on the first attempt (p < 0.001). African Americans were 13.4 times more likely to fail when compared to whites (p < 0.0001), and Latinos were 7.4 times more likely (p < 0.0001) to fail when compared to whites. They are more likely to end up in primary care residencies, to be older, and to come from families of lower income.This data obviously has huge implications. Every medical school has a few failures on Step 1 and should be concerned about the implications. Are we willing to tolerate this difference in the relative risk of failing a nationally standardized high stakes examination? There may be pre-matriculate variables that explain some of the differences, but there also may be ways to identify and intervene in high-risk students’ academic career in ways that can decrease their risk of failure.
Take a look at the programs that are in place at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and Southern Illinois University. They have been successful in helping students that were identified as at-risk students. Unfortunately, but many schools would rather try to decrease the number of at-risk students that they admit.The method that is often used is to try to admit students with higher MCAT scores and higher undergraduate GPAs. The problem with this strategy is that in doing this the school will also increase the number of rich, white, male students who come from urban backgrounds. This leads to a student body that is less diverse. That is something that our schools should not tolerate.
(1) McDougle L, et al. Academic and professional career outcomes of medical school graduates who failed USMLE Step 1 on the first attempt. Adv in Health Sci Edu. 7 April 2012 (Online First).(2) Biskobing DM, et al. Study of selected outcomes of medical students who fail USMLE Step 1. Medical Education Online 2006;11(11):1–7.