For some doctors, continuing medical education (CME) is an inconvenient speed bump. For others, it’s just a vacation destination, a way to check off a professional obligation while taking your family somewhere fun. When properly balanced, though, CME is more like a needed refueling on your journey as a practicing physician.
Finding that balance isn’t always easy—here’s how.
Understanding your CME requirements
While the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) oversee CME regulations for American physicians in general, your own licensure requirements are also dictated by your individual state’s medical board.
For example, in New York there are no state CME requirements, while in California a physician has to attend 50 hours of CME over two years, with topics including pain management, end-of-life care and possibly geriatric medicine. In Tennessee, 40 hours of CME is required, with two hours focusing on prescribing habits.
This state-by-state variation in continuing medical education requirements for physicians can be confusing. Fortunately, there are resources to help you find your own state’s requirements. Your state board website is a good place to start, and there’s a strong chance your office administrator will know the specifics. Every few years, they have to file for recredentialing of the practice’s medical license to the state board and recredentialing for privileges at your hospital.
Balancing your requirements and your interests
The variability of CME requirements across states isn’t the only challenge physicians face in maintaining licensure. You must also balance learning about the topics your state mandates with pursuing those that are more pertinent to your practice or your interests. As a paper in the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions points out, a lack of flexibility around CME regulations means that physicians may often just be “checking a box” rather than engaging meaningfully with the material that will help them truly continue their education.
That said, think before you discount topics that at first seem irrelevant. A cardiologist, for example, may consider opioids to be unrelated to their practice. Yet the opioid crisis is a public health emergency that, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, led to over 40,000 unnecessary deaths in 2018 alone—and the only way to fix the situation is through the work of physicians who prescribe opioids. As physicians, we need to recognize the public health importance of these mandatory topics and be able to use the knowledge we gain from CME requirements when working with our patients.
Education on end-of-life care, another frequently mandatory topic, provides physicians with the opportunity to refine our communication skills in difficult situations. Every doctor can benefit from training that allows us to better relate to our patients. Even if your patients aren’t likely to be dealing with end-of-life care themselves, they may have a close friend or family member doing so now. We can’t always predict where we’ll find opportunities to support our patients.
Finding the resources
Finally, as a busy physician you also need to balance your CME requirements with your time and expenses. But even if you can’t travel to attend continuing medical education seminars, you can still fulfill your requirements. Reading a journal article and answering multiple-choice questions can be a convenient way to earn CME credits, and when you complete medical readings on accredited sites like UpToDate, you receive credits based on the time you spend reading about a particular topic. In addition, AudioDigest allows you to fulfill CME obligations by listening to lectures without having to find the time or money to leave home.
If you would like to travel somewhere for CME courses but don’t have the budget, there are solutions. You can make compensation for CME part of your yearly contract with your employer; or, if you’re in private practice, be sure to record your expenses so you can file them on your taxes and receive a deduction.
Continuing medical education came into being during the first half of the twentieth century, when increased specialization and an explosion of medical information meant it was more important than ever for physicians to keep up with the latest research. The challenge of staying up to date is even more overwhelming now. Rather than looking at CME as squandered time, think of it as an opportunity to learn more about a familiar topic with fresh eyes—or a fresh topic with experienced eyes.