My PLAB experience (a VERY long time coming!)

Very recently, I was asked by one of my friends if I could share my experience about the PLAB exams, as guidance for prospective candidates. Having taken the exams quite a while back (2014!) I found it hard to address the issue, so they sent me a questionnaire to make things easier to explain to someone not very familiar with the way forward when contemplating taking the PLAB exams. I am sharing the whole Q&A session here (with a few minor adjustments/deletions with the author’s permission). Thank you @Sadaf Taymor (http://sidtay.blogspot.co.uk) for the opportunity to express myself and to share an important experience with everyone!

The curious case of PLAB (09/10/2017)

What is the PLAB exam and how does it help in initiating a medical career in UK?
There are many routes of entry into the UK for doctors who wish to train here. The easiest and most common one is to take the PLAB  (or Professional and Linguistics Assessment Board) exam and become GMC certified. Let me tell you a bit about this – basically any country that you work in has their own authority that confirms that you are good to practice in that country. For Pakistan, that authority is the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, for the UK it is the General Medical council. Passing BOTH PLAB 1&2 gets you the license for the GMC to practice. After you get those out of the way and are certified then you are basically allowed to practice in the UK. That’s what people usually do.
The PLAB exams are the basic, entrance-level exams. You could potentially also get GMC certified by taking any of the more advanced membership exams for any of the Royal Colleges (but more about that at a later juncture – let’s keep this simple!)
The bottom line is you can not practice medicine in the UK without being GMC certified, and the easiest and most common route of entry to get that is to take the PLAB exams.
What kind of a format does this exam follow and what time limit does the candidate have for the exam
The PLAB has 2 parts – both are compulsory to pass individually. The first part is theoretical, and is based on the multiple choice questions format (or should I say, the single best answer format). You are given three hours to answer 200 questions. I have often heard people lament that the time is not enough, but I think it is doable. It may be difficult if you are not used to such a format, but in this field, better get used to this format, because later exams are also going to be in the same manner, same time frame (possibly even worse!)
The second part is interactive and consists of multiple stations. It is OSCE-based format, where each candidate rotates in 14 stations, each station assessing a different skill. Examples of such interactive sessions include taking a proper history, examining certain system, counselling a patient about something, and so on.
You can attempt the PLAB 1 as many times as you wish. Once you pass it, you have three years to pass the second part, failing which you will have to take the PLAB 1 again. You have 4 maximum attempts to take the PLAB 2.
Does the test have a certain validity?
Once you pass both parts of the exam and are GMC certified, you do not have to retake it again. You just have to keep up to date your assessments and your competence and you get re-validated automatically every 5 years.
 Any specific tips on cracking the test?
For the first part, I would advise go back to your roots, back to the basics. The whole syllabus is available on the GMC/PLAB websites. Try to practice as many questions as you can, get your tempo going, get used to this format before you take the exam. 2-3 months of prep should be enough.
For the second part, it can only be taken in the UK so make sure you have everything sorted before you travel for the exam. There are course available which guide and prepare and help practice the various stations that may come in the exam. These preparatory courses are much recommended before you take the PLAB 2 (if you have never worked in the UK or similar circumstances before).

Interesting Observations on a mock OSCE Teaching Day

Hi all – so a few days back I had the unique opportunity to organize (OK who am I kidding? I helped to organise) a 1-day course for the FRCA OSCE exam in our deanery. We as the juniors of the department of anaesthetics/ITU/Theaters were called upon to help with various tasks: timekeeper for the different stations, be a patient for history taking, or be one of the relatives for counselling, be a mannequin for examinations, etc. I had a multitude of nominal tasks on the day, but what I found to be invaluable to me that day were a few observations that I made observing the various candidates as they filed through the different stations, and I list those observations here in no particular order to be taken as advice for all my colleagues who have OSCEs to take, bear these in mind:

– Be cognisant of time. As you walk up to the OSCE station, whether it gives you 30 seconds to read through an initial scenario or there is a piece of paper with questions written on it that you are expect to answer, get into the mental zone where you can mould yourself to give what is required of that particular station in the time provided. If there is one question that needs to be answered, you can be a bit relaxed, if there are 3 questions on the paper, make sure you are aware of the time you have to divide amongst them all to do justice to all. If the station requires an interaction with someone like a viva or a direct encounter, make sure you have a framework in mind, a mental checklist to check things off during the actual station so that you are not rambling on about your second point when there are 7 other things you need to be talking about.

–  When asked a question, don’t feel pressured to answer as soon as you sit down – take a breath, pause, ponder over the question for a few seconds, frame your answer for the next few, and then open your mouth to speak. Do not repeat the question back to the examiner in wonderment, as if puzzling it over, you may think you are buying time while you collect your thoughts, but it looks unprofessional. If you need time to answer, take it, but do not insult the examiners’ intelligence by repeating the question back word for word. It is a waste of time.

– When asked a question, avoid using pronouns like ‘you’ as a general term. “If you are on the floor for a long time, your creatinine kinase levels may rise.” While correct, it looks like you are addressing the examiner, whereas a more professional way to answer would be “Patients lying on the floor for extended periods of time may have elevated levels of creatinine kinase.”

– Following on from the previous point – when describing the anatomical location of anything, or a function, it is OK to use your hands to express yourself, but do not gesture towards your own body as a descriptor for your answer. In answer to the question Where can an IO needle be inserted? you may think it is the right answer to point to your sternum, your humerus or your tibial tuberosity, but it won’t score you any points. Also please practise certain expressions or gestures, gesturing towards your crotch for instance when talking about urinary catheterisation is inappropriate. And for goodness sake, it is even worse to point these things out on the examiners body.

– Use proper terminology, use buzzwords if you know them (we all know them) and specific things carry specific marks so make sure you attend some sort of course at least once in your life for OSCE practise so that you know what the examiner is looking for in a particular station when they ask you a particular question. Also, examiners know when you are beating about the bush and not getting to the point – so don’t waste their time (and yours), admit you do not know, and move on.

– Having done poorly in a previous station has no bearing on how you can or should perform in the next one – so do not let anything bother you. Yes, you may well have failed the previous station, but if you continue to mull over it or let it get to you, you may ruin your chances of passing the next one as well. Once you step out of one station, close that chapter, and open the next one with a clean slate.

–  Do not try to impress with big words and fancy terms – be simple, logical and just answer to the best of your knowledge. They are there to test your knowledge and see how good you are with using that knowledge. They are not there to ask for your hand in marriage.

–  If there is a written station, please write clearly. In our current professional examination climate, where usually there is a tick box or a fill-in-the-correct-circle type answer sheets, we forget how to answer the short answer type questions. Make sure it is legible. Your right answer is useless if no one can decipher it.

–  Read up on the simple things (in case of our anaesthetics colleagues, anatomy and physiology, undoubtedly – aside from the usual physics etc) – understand the concept behind why something is done or not done, and it will make it easier for you in these exams.

–  Study. I don’t know why it is so under-rated, that OSCE exams are interaction based and so I just don’t need to read up on how to take a history or do a pre-op assessment or perform a physical examination or test the cranial nerves – we do it everyday, and we get into a comfortable zone – but the exam might need for us to brush up on those skills and make sure we are not missing out on anything. MOST candidates missed an important part of the history taking station, as well as the counselling station – points were docked, valuable points, and for some that can mean the difference between passing and failing.

Guest Blog Post by Dr. Hassan Alraee – “My MRCEM OSCE Experience”

This is our second guest blog post from esteemed colleague Dr. Hassan Alraee – Emergency Medicine Registrar (Ireland). I take no credit for the following text.

Dear Colleagues,
I am sharing my MRCEM OSCE experience with you guys as I realized while preparing for the exam there was not much guidance available online. The aim of this post is to familiarize everyone with what the exam entails and a few tips which may be helpful in your preparation for the OSCE.
This may not be a structured or typical guidance post, it may come out as a random collection of thoughts but I will try my best to note down everything that was helpful to me during the preparation for the OSCE.
First of all to be eligible to appear in the exam you need to have passed the FRCEM Primary exam, passing the FRCEM Intermediate SAQ exam is NOT one of the eligibility criteria. However, in my experience passing the FRCEM Intermediate SAQ exam gives you a baseline in theoretical knowledge that is required for the OSCE. So it would be ideal to attempt the exams in the sequence that has been set, i.e. Primary, Intermediate and OSCE.
Before beginning your preparation for the exam have a look at the MRCEM Information Pack available on the RCEM website. A list of study material that may be helpful includes;
1. MCEM Part C: 125 OSCE Stations by Kiran Somani
2. Mastering Emergency Medicine: A Practical Guide by Mathew Hall
3. Bromley Webinars
4. At least 1 (if not more) of the following courses; The London Clinical Course, The Bromley Course or the Manchester Course.
The exam itself feels like a daunting task during the preparation phase as it is completely different to the previous parts and reading books alone is not the best way to get through it. My advice would be to stick to one of the above mentioned books and go through it once. The next step would be to create a practice group which should comprise of at least 3 members. This would mean all 3 of you would be able to rotate through different roles during the practice sessions, i.e. The candidate, The actor and The examiner. In my humble opinion this practice group is the key to being successful in the exam. The final step would be to book one of the above mentioned courses. In order to maximize the courses you need to be fully prepared for the exam by the time you attend the course and treat it as a Mock Examination.
Each of the courses has their own pros and cons but all of them are helpful in preparing you for the OSCE.
Each OSCE comprises of 18 stations, 2 of which are rest stations. The exam does not test your theoretical knowledge to a great extent, the stations in the OSCE are designed to test various skills. Like all OSCE exams there is a fair degree of play acting and exaggeration of your daily practices is required. By this I mean that the examiner will only mark you on the actions you perform during the exam, so make sure you show every step and tick most boxes in the examiner’s checklist.
The basic outline of the stations encountered within the OSCE are;
1) There are 2 to 3 history taking stations, remember to complete the station by giving the patient a management plan based on the history.
2) A Systemic examination station (CVS, Respiratory, Abdominal, Cranial Nerve or Peripheral Vascular examination)
3) A Joint examination station (Hip, Shoulder, Knee, Back, C-spine or a limb examination)
4) A Breaking Bad News scenario
5) There are 2 or 3 teaching stations which may include teaching a procedure or examination to a student or a junior doctor.
6) There is always a Conflict Resolution in the OSCE as well, which may be a missed fracture or pneumothorax or a difficult referral. This station also includes talking to a patient with Alcohol Dependence or Binge Drinking.
7) 2 scenarios within the OSCE are always Resuscitation Scenarios and test your skills in ACLS, APLS or ATLS. These stations seem like they are the most difficult ones while preparing for the exam, but in my opinion you can easily pass these if you make a good approach towards resus stations during your practice sessions. The Key to the resus scenarios is sticking to the ABCDE approach.
8) ENT and Eye station; in the exam they can check your knowledge on these in various ways it can be a simple otoscopic or ophthalmoscopic examination, teaching may be incorporated into it or history taking could be tested but there will always be a station that will involve ENT or Eye.
9) A quick assessment station; this one is a tricky one, it usually has the task of taking a short history, performing a focused examination and formulating a management plan based on your findings and summarizing it to the patient.
10) An Information Providing station; this station usually involves a relative of the patient to whom you have to explain a new diagnosis or management of a medical condition. Juvenile Diabetes Mellitus and Addision’s Disease are 2 examples that I can recall.
11) A Psychiatric Station is always present in the OSCE, you may be asked to performed a Mental state examination on a patient or assess suicide risk, they may add a conflict resolution component to this station as well.

In my opinion if you divide your preparation according to these 11 types of stations you will be able to cover most of the things required to be successful. Some additional topics that are tested in different ways and I haven’t categorized under the stations include; DVT, major incidents, seizures and driving advice. It would be wise to look up the NICE guidelines on these.
I would also suggest that you reach the city where the exam is being held one day earlier and have a look at your examination center that day. Just so you know how long it takes to get there and don’t have the extra stress of finding the center on the morning of the exam. Please spend your last 2 days traveling and relaxing, there is no point in trying to cram in stuff over the last 2-3 days as this is not a theoretical exam where they expect you to know everything.
On the exam day itself it is understandable to be anxious and stressed and believe me the examiners know that the candidates are under pressure and are not there to fail you. You should know that staying cool and calm is the most important feature that will enable you to be successful. It usually takes 1 or 2 stations to get into the groove of the exam as the 1st station comes up it is normal to feel a little nervous or blank out temporarily. Do not act bold and wing it if you are unsure about something, be safe at this stage and say you are unable to recall at this point in time and that you will consult the department policy or your consultant before implementing it.
Do not worry if any of your stations don’t go as well as you expected them to, leave the previous station behind you and move on to the next one. Do not let your performance on the previous station affect your performance on the next one. I know this is easier said than done but it has to be said as it is human nature to dwell on the past. You should also know that there is not a minimum number of stations that need to be passed to pass the exam, that was how it used to be in the past. The marking scheme has changed to a cumulative score now and a different passing mark is set for every OSCE day so even if you fail a station you carry forward marks from it towards your overall score. Therefore it is imperative that you score marks for the basic things on each station. Some of these include greeting the actor, washing hands before and after examination, wearing personal protective equipment (or at least mentioning it to the examiner), being warm and courteous and thanking the actor at the end. These simple things may be the difference between a pass and fail score in your OSCE.
I hope it was helpful for all those that are reading this post, good luck with your exam, with a bit of structure and practice I’m sure you will pass the OSCE.