Exams – what to do, what not to do – and when to do?!

Having recently passed the FRCEM (Primary) – I have yet to decide what my next step is going to be. I start my second year of training in 4 weeks. I had initially planned on a practical approach to training requirements, such as trying to get atleast 1 exam (check!) and 1 course (ALS/ATLS/APLS) per year of training, and though I have not yet done another course (I did my ALS in 2015!) this year and ideally would like to do another course this year – I am getting more and more inclined towards taking the next part of the FRCEM, known as the intermediate part. I am wondering whether that would be a good idea. Everyone I encounter seems to think that is a good way to go. One of my consultants even feels the intermediate might be an easier exam to take than the primary, since it is clinical oriented and has to do with what you deal with on a day to day basis rather than the facts and figures of physiologyanatomymicrobiology and the other basic sciences. So it tends to be easier for someone who is working in an environment that gives them good amount of clinical exposure to day to day EM cases. Thoughts, anyone?

The whole examination schedule is a bit of a confusion at the moment – well, let’s face it, examinations are very confusing anyways, atleast for someone like me. So let me break it down for you, if you were as confused as i was – if you weren’t, good on you and you can move on!

WHAT IT USED TO BE
It used to be a membership exam, which entailed 3 parts and got you a ‘Membership by examination’ of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, UK (which used to be just the College of Emergency Medicine until about 2014 when it was given the status of a Royal college, in essence converting the MCEM into the MRCEM) – the first part was the written, true or false patterned exam. It dealt with all the basic sciences (physiologyanatomymicrobiology), and the format was 50 questions with 4 parts each (so in essence 200 questions) each with a true/false answer. This was followed by a 2nd part, the MCEM B which was a clinical knowledge exam, also written. And then came the MCEM C, the practical or “multiple stations of interaction, examination, history taking, counselling etc” exam. Pass all three and you gained the membership of the RCEM. This was the prerequisite for someone training, or interested in training, in emergency medicine needed to pass before being considered for a higher training post (the ST4 onwards stint in a ST1-6 training program). After entering ST4, and before the end of ST6 you were required to sit for the FRCEM (used to by the FCEM) exams which were the Fellowship of the RCEM exams – pass the 5 parts of that (yes FIVE! hideous, I know!) and you can move on to a consultant post – a specialist in the field of emergency medicine.

WHAT IT IS NOW:
They are now in somewhat of a transition period. They are starting to phase out the MCEM/MRCEM exams as a requirement for trainees in the UK at least – after 2018 I believe it won’t be a requirement at all. They have now coalesced the MRCEM and the FRCEM exams into one single entity, called the FRCEM exams, which entails three parts. The first part is the basic sciences bit, the equivalent of the MRCEM A, and is called the FRCEM (primary) – *please click here to get to the post about my experience with this exam*   followed by the FRCEM (intermediate), which as I understand consists currently of 1 part, the written clinical oriented short answer questions exam but as of a few months later (autumn 2017) there will be a ‘part 2 of the part 2’ a second component of the Intermediate exam. This bit, called the Situational Judgement Paper or the SJP for short (and for convenience!) is more of a management type exam that is once again a written exam like the SAQ. But I have no idea what else it entails; more on that in a later post! But as it stands right now, the FRCEM intermediate is just the clinical written exam.

I am yet to figure out what is the counterpart of the MRCEM C, the practical bit of the previous set of exams, in this new-fangled exam scenario. I have been told however that you can take the part C exam of the MRCEM and if you are able to do that before August 2018, then you have 2 pluses: you are exempt the SJP (which means its the counterpart of the MRCEM C?) and you get an official membership degree, the MRCEM, in addition to the FRCEM degree when you complete it.

The third and final part of the FRCEM exams is the FRCEM (final) which is basically what the original FCEM exam used to be – with a slightly different format/ and 1 or 2 parts either exchanged to something else or dropped completely from the list.

As I understand, you need the FRCEM  primary and intermediate before you can be considered eligible to progress from ST3 to ST4 as an EM trainee. The rest you can complete thereafter. You have 6 attempts at each part, previous attempts at their counterparts do not count – so if you have attempted and failed the MCEM A, those failed attempts won’t count when you attempt the FRCEM primary, it will be a clean slate that you start off with. If you fail a 6th time, and can explain away the reason for failing as a genuine distraction/trigger for failing – the college does consider and may allow you to take the exam a 7th time but that is to their discretion and is dealt with on a case by case basis. You are also allowed an extension of 6 months of your rotation, from ST3 – to allow you to pass the exam and move to the 4th year of training.

Non-trainees or doctors not working in the UK can still choose to obtain the MRCEM by examination, and take parts A, B and C of the MRCEM; it carries weightage in India, Pakistan, Sri lanka (not sure) and UAE/Dubai/Middle East. If you are in a UK based training program in emergency medicine you automatically become a member of the RCEM by association – so the MRCEM is now technically obsolete. It is still a good exam to have on board, a great feather in the cap.

I am just beginning my journey in the EM training field so my experience with the rest of these exams is minimal. I will update this post as and when I prepare/take the other exams, and/or find out more knowledge/updates about the various parts/schedules/content. Or it may be in a later post, the link of which I would put up here. Till then, I sincerely hope I have not confused you further!

FRCEM (Primary) – Done and dusted!

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.

ANATOMY

– 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

PHYSIOLOGY

Lung volumes – cardiac cycle – hormones (renin, angiotensin, mineralocorticoid, cortisol, adrenal medulla, pancreas, PTH, calcitonin, Vit D and its metabolytes) – renal physiology – 

MISCELANEOUS 

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!

The world is indeed your oyster – always work to improve!

Always set goals for yourself, it is never too late to improve yourself, or hone a skill. Add to your already accumulated skill set, or improve pre-existing ones. There is always room for improvement. Always another star you can aim for.

If you find yourself saturated (or the environment around you saturated, and you can’t get a foothold) move to greener pastures – if you are the best at something in one place, chances are there will be something new to learn in a different place, even if you do the same thing.

Get another degree (something which I am trying to do), study a new culture, learn a new language (something I am currently working on!) get a new hobby (like photography? cooking? Blogging!) Move to another town, another city, another country – see how another part of the world does it’s business. Read a new book – finish it and pick up another one, go through a personal list, then go through someone else’s list – make new friends, meet new people. Make a mistake. Learn from it, move on. Do not be afraid to make a mistake. Share your knowledge (yes, you have it!) Pick someone up from where they have fallen. Help them if you can. Surprise yourself with how good it feels, and how easy it is to make someone happy (or just less sad).

Be the best you can be, and then strive for even better than that.

Always improve. Always be open to change. Always be open to suggestion to make yourself better. Always be humble enough to know that there is always room for that little bit of change, however hard you try to fight it – you will end up being a new ‘you’, very likely for the better. You are your own best investment. Do right by yourself.

Hello world!

Greetings! New blogger in da house, what?!

Three days. That’s when I had this sudden bright idea (read ‘overheard my wife and sister-in-law talking about the benefits of blogging’) of starting my very own blog. I do, after all, have some interesting stories to tell.

I am a doctor by profession, and my chosen poison or…errr…specialty is emergency medicine. Yes, all the stories you have heard are true. We not only deal with the mundane cardiac events and road traffic accidents and strokes, but we also deal with the very interesting (and not so mundane!) foreign bodies in weird places that you ‘accidentally fell on to while climbing a ladder in the middle of the night naked and that’s how it ended up in my bum’. Very classy, and we totally fall for it. Not.

I also have an almost-2 year old, and the combination of sleepless nights due to daddy duty, and that of my lesser evil but equally exhausting shift work that I do, leads to quite a collection of interesting … incidents, shall we say? Some of them I would not breathe a word to anyone, and others, well let’s face it, they do make for great dinner party conversation.

So here I am, sharing my wisdom (or lack thereof). These are my stories, memories, anecdotes, reflections and thoughts – the inner rantings of a 30-something budding (balding?) doctor, trying to be an emergency physician, while also trying to dad.