So I am happy to report that the results of the recent FRCEM (primary) exam were announced this evening – and I am proud (read ecstatic!) to share that I passed it! *takes a bow* (if you are interested in questions from the exam, read about that in a separate post here)
This is why I have been slightly out of the blogging scene for the past few weeks – prepping for the exam, juggling the ARCP for my first year of training and what has been very likely the hardest and longest and hottest summer stretch I have ever endured (and I am from Pakistan!) But I am back with the proverbial bang!
And I bring with it the novelty of experience.
It’s not a difficult exam per se – but it is an exam that requires commitment, and time and energy. Be ready to make that commitment. It’s a new exam, only started in Autumn 2016 I believe.
Back in the good old days when I was a (very) junior doctor back home in Pakistan, I had the luxury of having ‘many’ weeks off in lieu of exam prep – the job itself was intense but i had no other commitments; i.e training, portfolio, assessments, ARCP, etc. For this exam, I was working in your regular, run-of-the-mill A&E department in the UK, as a 1st year trainee. I decided to take the exam, decision was taken in January, I booked an online question database then, and I booked the exam in mid February, but I didn’t really get a good momentum going initially, and was still in 2 minds. Why? Because of the ARCP which is an assessment of all your competencies for a required year of training that you have managed to accumulate over the period of the past year, and a panel of judges basically sits and decides whether your performance (based on these signed competencies) is good enough to warrant your progression to the next stage/year of training. So this year was to be my first ever ARCP and coincidentally the exam fell on the exact same date as the ARCP, so in addition to the preparation of the exam, I had to focus on my assessments/requirements for ARCP – all to be juggled along side a full time job in the A&E as one of the juniors. It is doable folks.
So in bits and bobs I started my prep. I had that textbook of emergency medicine, but I must admit I never got beyond the first 5-7 pages of it! Doing the questions from the question bank is what helped me pass along with (as I said) youtube videos. I took a 4 month subscription for the FRCEM exam prep website – previously known as MCEM exam prep website. (‘tom-aye-to, tom-aah-to’). They have a good database of questions fortunately of the SBAQ type as well as the older true/false format. I have ready in many places that you could use any of the other websites/question banks as well.
On my days off, I aimed to do 50-100 question (see, I made you laugh there!) Who am I kidding, I barely got 30 done on a good day – these questions came with explanations, why this option is right, and why the others are wrong, along with a short description of the topic that the question deals with. I inevitably began making a habit of taking pictures of the explanations in my cellphone, and I went back to them again and again, for example before going to bed, or while waiting for my wife/son to wake up in the morning on my rare days off. I found this habit helpful, as you may not retain some of the information that you read, but if you go back and go through it again, or atleast if not all of it, then maybe just the major salient points, it is bound to stick to you.
On my days where I was working, I tried doing a few questions while at work, on my phone, between patient. That was a bad idea. Not only did I not have enough time to do even a single question justice – I also did not retain too much due to the lack of concentration in a busy A&E department. Ditched that idea fast. I did however vow not to waste any of the days I was working though, so after a busy shift, I used to come back, rest, recuperate or sleep (mostly slept) thanks to my wife who really upped her support game and banished me to a separate room in the house at all hours of day or night, waking or asleep – no diaper duty, no bath time no sleep time with the baby – just the books, fooding and my laptop. Where was I? Yes – days I was working, depending on what shift I had done, I still tried to get a good solid 3 plus hours of ‘mcqsing’ as I called it. On days that I was on morning shifts, I came home by 5 pm, straight to bed, slept for an hour and a half or 2 – woke up – tea/food/family time for an hour or 2 and then hitting the books (or laptop in this case) from 10 pm onwards up until 2-3 am – then 5+ hours of sleep and a repeat of this. Or on the afternoon shifts (2pm/4pm to 10 pm or midnight) similarly I used to come back home, freshen up, spend a minuscule amount of time with the family before they dropped off to sleep and then ‘mcqsed’ till the wee hours of morning, going to bed at 5 am or thereabouts, to wake up just in time for lunch and off to work. Night shifts were a bit more difficult, and I sort of gave up on trying to cram anything in my head during the 4-5 night stretch we have – the hangover like state I was in during the night shift stint was not really amenable for any further insult to the brain by forcing it to swallow any other bits of information/mcqs.
I also youtubed a lot of videos – specially anatomy ones, and one or two for physiology and microbiology. There are a lot of good ones out there. I focussed on upper and lower limb anatomy the most, along with the plexuses. You can just search for them under ‘anatomy, mcem or mrcem’.
My strategy towards the middle/end of my prep was to focus mostly on the maximum yield subjects – broadly anatomy and physiology which carried the most weightage in the actual exam, with 60 questions from each subject (out of a total of 180 questions!) Followed by significant input from microbiology/pharmacology/pathology. I used to do 3 sets of 20 questions in a row – the first set being anatomy, second physiology and the 3rd annoys the others, but I kept the first two sets the same, due to its weightage. Anatomy threw me, as it was basically learning a new something I had learnt almost 13-14 years back in the early medical school years! I think it was safe to say I had forgotten most of it, despite having a refresher course during my stint at the USMLE exams. But I digress. I found the following topics high yield, and got an inkling from my various forays into the question banks that these were important enough to be tested and warranted more attention (or repetitive attention) from my end.
– Upper limb (muscles -attachments and function, nerves, bones, blood vessels) -Lower limb (Same as above) – brachial plexus – abdominal wall layers – blood supply of the heart – borders of the heart – contents of spermatic cord/inguinal canal – Sacral plexus – Optic nerve lesions – cranial nerve basics – triangles of the neck – foramina of the skull and their contents – diaphragmatic openings – Facial nerve – spinal cord lesions based on presentation – stuff going on at T4 level – brain blood supply
Lung volumes – cardiac cycle – hormones (renin, angiotensin, mineralocorticoid, cortisol, adrenal medulla, pancreas, PTH, calcitonin, Vit D and its metabolytes) – renal physiology –
Vaccination program – Drugs that induce/inhibit cytochrome p450 – broad microbiology – allergic/hypersensitivity reaction types – types/examples of vaccines – immunoglobulin types –
I also attended a course arranged very kindly by our deanery for candidates interested in the FRCEM primary. It was purported to be a tough exam, as the previous attempt had had a passing percentage of 43 percent. Yes, only 43 % of the candidates who appeared for the previous attempt passed. We gulped down our fears, and while the course gave us a broad idea of what wee needed to be doing (which was a lot!) it served no greater purpose than to tell us that we were not alone in being scared and that everyone seemed to be equally stumped by their performance in the questions – slightly reassured by the fact that during practise mcq sessions, when the consultants tried to solve the questions they were mostly unable to. Slightly reassuring, and mostly horrifying, as how were we supposed to pass the exam?! Yikes. What threw most people was that the exam format had been changed – from the previous true or false format, to the Single Best Answer Question or SBAQ format. All options in a given question may be correct in different ways, but select the answer which is most appropriate according to the stem. Which basically translates to “guess what the examiner was thinking when he/she made this question” – so no pressure!
By the last few weeks, I was about to pull my hair out – the amount of mcps I was doing wasn’t too much, and I didn’t seem to be ding all that well if you calculated the number of questions I was getting right – overall a 52-55 percent of correct answers. Abysmal. I did not let that disappoint me, however, knowing full well that practicing questions was the way to go in such an exam format.
I used up all of my 2 weeks of annual leave and 3 out of 5 days of study leave for this exam, which brought me to just about 20 days of uninterrupted preparation (coupled with MANY visits to the department for ARCP related issues). That I feel was the single best thing in way of preparation – the time off was focussed, and I wasn’t tired from running around – preparation is mentally exhausting as it is, coupled with the physical exhaustion of day-to-day ED life – it takes a toll. All I did was sleep, eat and study. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But I will reiterate here what I have said before as well – you can never do enough questions as practise – just keep doing as much as you can, every waking minute make sure you are doing questions. Whether its 5 or 50 questions, make sure you stay consistent and do not get laid-back and forget to do questions – keep doing them, whether right or wrong, as long as you are also focusing on the explanations of those questions, its a learning experience.
Advice about the exam itself: Time management – 180 questions, 3 hours. The way I did it was divided it into 3 parts, so I needed to have completed 60 questions in 1 hour, and preferably even faster than that, since I needed to allow some time at the end to go back and tackle the more difficult or confusing questions. Keep track of time as well – if you seem to initially be on track, keep checking the clock every 10-15 minutes and make sure you are on track. If you feel you need to think more than 20 seconds for an answer and are still unable to do so, then mark the question and move on, return to it later. Do not waste minutes on a single question, causing a delay and jeapardising multiple other questions. Read the stem carefully – often we do not read the ‘except’ ‘all’ which’ ‘most appropriate’ next step’ gold standard’ ‘not included’ bits of the stem and inadvertently end up selecting the wrong option. In case of long stems, read the last bit/question and the skim over the rest of the stem, to gauge what they are looking for. If you don’t know the answer, go through the options by the process of elimination. Eliminate the blatantly wrong options. Think about the rest, if possible eliminate another 1 or 2 till you are left with one. If you read the stem and know the answer, look for that in the options, if you see it, select that. Always attempt all questions, no use leaving a question blank and lose an opportunity of a lucky guess. Feel free to draw, make flowcharts, write things down in the margins of the question paper if it helps you remember, calculate, reach a conclusion (I remember I drew the whole optic nerve/tract/radiation diagram to help me diagnose where a lesion was based on the hemianopia referred to in the question paper!) The questions may be easier than your practise question bank – don’t worry!
And I had the support of good friends. I don’t know, there is something about prepping for an exam (or anything in life for that matter!) and knowing that there is someone else going through the exact same thing as I am – it creates an interestingly unique bond. I had 2 such colleagues and friends, and I am pleased (and incredibly proud) that they have passed as well. We used to work together in the same ED department back home in Pakistan, and are now in different parts of the UK pursuing careers in emergency medicine. Onwards and upwards!