ABR MOC and the Art of the Apology

This week the American Board of Radiology emailed its diplomates in response to the continued concern that its initial fix to the over the top legalese in its agreements was buried so deep that no one could see it as well as the frustration that people who caved early didn’t have a chance to sign the new one.

I know some regular readers are getting bored of all this ABR talk—and we’ll be moving on from this flurry soon I promise—but there’s also a lot to learn here about management and organized medicine.

The ABR, clearly hoping for a gold star, started with this email subject line: “We listened to your concerns about our MOC Participation Agreement.”

Glad to hear it.

Today we’re discussing how to apologize.

Dear Diplomate:
As part of your enrollment in the ABR’s Maintenance of Certification (MOC) and associated interactions with our website, periodic renewals of user agreements are needed to codify the understanding of the limitations of usage of the materials and the extent of liability. This is especially important in establishing the security of the content used in assessment, in order to maintain a secure, valid, and fair process.

In March, an error in the creation of the agreement resulted in the posting of an incorrect document, with more restrictive language than was intended. Specifically, our request for those enrolled in MOC to waive certain legal rights was neither reasonable nor necessary.

I gave the ABR some advice on how to apologize back in 2017. When an accountable organization makes a mistake, they should:

  1. Express regret and acknowledge responsibility
  2. Be transparent and describe the mistake
  3. Give an action plan and steps to correct the problem
  4. Ask for forgiveness

They do a decent (incomplete) job of #3 and #4 in the following paragraphs. But they did a terrible job with #1 and #2.

The ABR is pretending that a Janice or Karen or Peter accidentally uploaded an “incorrect” document that was spuriously created in “error.” While we can all agree that waiving legal rights is stupid and unnecessary, this wasn’t an oversight. In terms of quality parlance such as might have been seen in the ABR’s manual for noninterpretive skills, the creation of the MOC agreement was not a “slip.” It was a bad choice and a manifestation of bad decision making.

It was deliberate. To say otherwise is ludicrous.

Especially so because this language was not new. I actually looked back at my own myABR history and saw that the same BS was in the “Agreement for Candidates and Diplomates” that I signed back in 2013, when I was a busy first-year resident unlearned in the machinations of our radiology overlords.

Perhaps the ABR was coyly suggesting that the language was unnecessary because all recent trainees have already signed away those rights. To wit, while the ABR changed the MOC agreement, they have not changed the Agreement for Candidates and Diplomates, which includes the same language.

Residents are a vulnerable population. Diplomates and organized radiology including the ACR should continue to put pressure on the ABR to fix this issue across the board. Don’t leave the trainees out to dry.

A revised document has since been implemented at https://myabr.theabr.org/moc-agreement. After discussion with counsel, acknowledging that the new language is far less stringent, this will supplant the original agreement for those who have already signed. Alternatively, these individuals may choose to sign the new agreement, but it is not required.

Now diplomates can now choose to sign the new agreement. Misuse of the term grandfathering has been avoided.

In view of the increasing administrative requirements inherent in the daily practice of medical practitioners, the ABR has an obligation to lessen such burdens whenever possible. We apologize for the error and hope to learn from it. No process is perfect, but we can and should continuously improve our processes based not only on internal quality control but also on feedback from our stakeholders, especially the radiology and physics professionals we are privileged to serve.

This is an excellent paragraph.


Brent J. Wagner, MD
ABR President

Valerie P. Jackson, MD
ABR Executive Director

In short: I don’t know why the ABR is institutionally incapable of giving a real apology.

But more importantly, the ABR only fixed part of the problem. They responded to the loudest voices, but they didn’t even fix the imposition of onerous language on our youngest colleagues let alone address the problematic “processes” and organizational perspective that created it in the first place.

Timeless Advice: The Golden Rule will never fail you

Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired and the writer who popularized the 1000 true fans idea, decided to give 68 bits of unsolicited advice on his sixty-eighth birthday. It’s an excellent quick collection, but here are a few great ones that apply especially well to medical training:

Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

Promptness is a sign of respect.

To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.

And one particularly timely one:

When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress.

Living Happily in a World You Don’t Understand

Morgan Housel, discussing the problematic narrowness and personal bias of most people’s mental models:

I don’t know what I don’t know. No one does. But we can’t walk around confused all day. Nassim Taleb says “I want to live happily in a world I don’t understand.” Which is exactly what we do. We take the world we live in and try to make a coherent story out of it based on the mental models we’ve developed during our lifetimes.

The takeaway: we are more likely to be influenced by our past than to truly learn from it. We are prone to overfitting life lessons to overly specific details instead of taking away useful general principles.

When this is over and we’re making decisions about how to best function in a post-COVID world, how much do you want to bet that people will say, “Yeah, but that was different. Those were special circumstances,” as a way to revert back to bad practices.

The ABR’s Thoughts on Doing the Right Thing

In response to concerns about exam administration, the American Board of Radiology has now released a “Statement on Delivering Remote Exams” to their Coronavirus updates page:

In response to queries, delivering our exams remotely is problematic. We have investigated many options, but the inability to adequately control image quality, the testing environment, and security would significantly threaten the fairness, reproducibility, validity, and reliability of the testing instrument across candidates.

A challenge? Sure. Problematic? A pure cop-out. To be absolutely clear, the ABR has already used remote testing in the past. It was just on their terms due to their mistake. There is nothing about ABR exam administration that cannot be effectively recreated in a remote setting, especially under these unprecedented circumstances.

We want to give exams that fairly and accurately assess a candidate’s knowledge and experience.

We’ve long since moved past wants and desires here. Nobody wants to be dealing with this, but forcing nationwide travel is by far the greatest threat to fair and accurate candidate assessment.

We pledge to remain flexible and responsive to candidate needs, and we appreciate everyone’s patience as we all go through the pandemic’s effects together.

Being “responsive to candidate needs” and also rejecting the idea of remote testing are 100% incompatible. This is absolutely a public health issue, and a head-down blinders-on approach is unacceptable for a health-related organization purporting to act in the public’s interest.