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Seven Things To Know When You Receive A Notice Of Investigation From The Department Of Health

Significant Changes to USMLE Exams and What They Mean for Medical Students and Graduates

By Achal A. Aggarwal, M.B.A., J.D., and George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

The United States Medical Licensing Examination (“USMLE“) is a three-step examination required to obtain a medical license. It is written and administered by the USMLE Secretariat of the National Board of Medical Examiners (“NBME“) and is sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (“FSMB”) and the USMLE.

Medical students desiring to practice in the U.S. are under immense pressure to not only pass the exams but to excel at them. Specifically, the USMLE Step 1 Examination, the USMLE Step 2 Clinical Knowledge (“CK”) Examination, and the USMLE Step 2 Clinical Skills (“CS”) Examination are the most significant deciding factors that residency programs use for selecting applicants to interview for residency positions. However, a lot is about to change.

Important Policy Changes.

On February 12, 2020, the FSMB and the NBME announced the following policy changes:

1. The Step 1 Exam will be changed to pass/fail grading;

2. The number of examination attempts for each exam will be reduced from six (6) to four (4); and

3. All examinees must pass the Step 1 Exam before taking the Step 2-CS Exam.

Changing the Step 1 Exam to Pass/Fail.

The USMLE has announced that it will change the Step 1 exam‘s grading system from a three-digit score to a pass/fail grading system. This change will go into effect on January 1, 2022.  A statement published on the website states that changing to pass/fail could help reduce some of the current overemphasis on USMLE performance while also retaining the ability of medical licensing authorities to use the exam for its primary purpose of medical licensure eligibility. Click here to visit the USMLE website and read the statement.

It appears that USMLE, FSMB, NBME, and the American Medical Association (AMA) are attempting to alleviate the stress and pressure the Step 1 exam puts on medical students. However, this change may cause issues for residency programs that are trying to screen for which students they want to interview.

In the current system, the Step 1 score is a three-digit score that is graded on a bell-curve. The minimum passing score for each Step 1 exam is different and depends on the performance of the total universe of the students who take that particular examination.

The three-digit score helps residency programs assess which students were more likely to excel in their program and which students would not. By changing the exam to a pass/fail scoring system, residency programs will be forced to rely more heavily on the Step 2-CK scores, medical school performance, and overall curriculum vitae.

Greater Emphasis to Be Placed on Step 2-CK Exam.

Currently, the Step 2-CK exam is only the fourth-most deciding factor in how residency programs select applicants for interviews. Approximately 80% of residency program directors stated that it was an important factor, but not the most.

On the other hand, the Step 2-CS exam score is a less influential factor, with only 56% of residency program directors saying that it was essential to their decision. Students should anticipate that the Step 2-CK and Step 2-CS will become more important as program directors shift their attention to the scores of those exams.

For more information click here.

What remains to be seen is how these changes will impact international medical graduates (“IMG”), commonly referred to as “foreign medical graduates.” To distinguish themselves, IMGs often tried to get the highest possible USMLE score, as this was the most objective way for them to be compared to other U.S. medical school students.

Since each domestic and international medical school has its own unique clinical grading system, the USMLE Step 1 was one of the most objective ways to compare residency applicants. Now that Step 1 scoring has been eliminated, it might be harder for IMGs to make themselves attractive to competitive residency programs.

Reducing Overall Exam Attempts from Six to Four.

Additionally, the USMLE is changing the limit on the total number of times an examinee may take the same Step exam from six (6) attempts to four (4) attempts. This means that after the policy is implemented, it will be ineligible to take a Step exam if the examinee has made four (4) prior attempts on that Step exam, including incomplete attempts.

The policy is set to be implemented on July 1, 2021. Learn more about the policy here.

Examinees Must Pass Step 1 Before Taking Step 2-CS.

Although the USMLE has suspended the Step 2-CS exam administration at the present time because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is set to implement a rule requiring all examinees to pass the Step 1 exam before qualifying to take the Step 2-CS exam.

Implementing such a rule would reduce the USMLE‘s burden of administering the Step 2-CS exam multiple times since students will be required to qualify for the examStudents can currently take the Step 1 exam, Step 2-CS exam, and Step 2-CK exam in any order they choose, depending on the requirements of their medical school. This new rule seeks to shift that burden by funneling students through the Step 1 exam.

The impact of such a change remains to be seen, however, we anticipate that this policy will reduce the testing burden on the USMLE while also maintaining the importance of the Step 1 exam despite changing its scoring to pass/fail.

It does represent a complete shake-up in how the system of testing has previously been administered.

Tips for the New Rules.

The following are suggestions we have concerning the new rules:

1. Take the Step 1 Exam as soon as you can, and begin preparing for the others.

2. Always treat every test administration extremely seriously, as though your future life and career depend on it; they do!

3. Take maximum advantage of commercial preparation courses and always try to take one of the recommended live ones before you take your examination.

4. Take off several weeks prior to the examination and find a hotel within walking distance of the test site where you will take the examination to study. Get rid of all distractions while studying for and immediately prior to taking the examination.

5. Never solicit actual test content or offer to share it with someone else.

For additional common-sense tips on preparing for and taking the USMLE Step exams, see another blog on this subject here.

Contact a Health Care Attorney Experienced in the Representation of Medical Students, Interns, Residents and Applicants, Fellows and Those Involved in Graduate Medical Education, and those being challenged by the National Board fo Medical Examiners (NBME), the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Secretariat, and the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG)

The Health Law Firm and its attorneys represent interns, residents, fellows, and medical school students in disputes with their medical schools, supervisors, residency programs, and in dismissal hearings. We have experience representing such individuals and those in graduate medical education programs in various disputes regarding their academic and clinical performance, allegations of substance abuse, failure to complete integral parts training, alleged false or incomplete statements on applications, allegations of impairment (because of abuse or addiction to drugs or alcohol or because of mental or physical issues), because of discrimination due to race, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, and any other matters. We routinely help those who have disputes with the National Board fo Medical Examiners (NBME), the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Secretariat, and the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), including on hearings and appeals concerning “Irregular Behavior,” “unprofessionalism,” and “Irregular Conduct.”

To contact The Health Law Firm please call (407) 331-6620 or toll-free at (888) 331-6620 and visit our website at

About the Authors: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, and Achal A. Aggarwal, M.B.A., J.D. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620, Toll-Free: (888) 331-662.

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