The medical director was direct and blunt: “You’ve got a problem with two very different levels of training in Mohs surgery. This is a big problem for your specialty.”
The remarks came at a medical director summit that I was attending to speak on the value of dermatology. I was explaining to medical directors how including small dermatology practices in their plans would realize cost savings when treating skin cancer in the office setting. An awkward silence followed the medical director’s remarks. Then I uttered a lame “we may have a board certification someday.”
My interview with the New York Times reporter before the meeting quickly became adversarial. “What about these guys who do Mohs after a 3-day course?” I explained that there is more involved than just the 3-day course, that there is a preceptorship and case reviews. Plus, some of “those guys” wrote some of the best Mohs textbooks. The reporter wasn’t buying it, and the rest of the interview went downhill.
And the training issues surrounding Mohs surgery are playing out in practice. One dermatologist wrote me complaining that an insurer will no longer let him bill for Mohs because “he can’t document his residency training in Mohs and did not do a fellowship.” Another wrote me saying he can no longer teach Mohs surgery at the VA or the medical school “because he didn’t do a formal Mohs fellowship.”
The issue of who is qualified to perform Mohs surgery is coming to a head. There are more than 2,500 dermatologists billing Medicare for Mohs, and insurers are groaning at the expense. They are looking for any possible reason to exclude dermatologists from billing for Mohs surgery.
A possible solution is a board certification in Mohs surgery. Osteopathic dermatologists have had this option for 20 years. Unfortunately, allopathic dermatologists cannot sit for the osteopathic exam. A new certification exam for allopathic dermatologists who have successfully completed a dermatology residency accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education ( ACGME ) seems worthy of a discussion.
Downsides of certification include the likely $1,000 or more cost of a test, the costs of preparing for the test, and the risk of failing a test. A new certification would give the Maintenance of Certification (MOC) haters another reason to complain, since about 600 lifetime certified, board-exempt dermatologists would be dragged back into MOC to maintain a Mohs surgery subspecialty certification. Some of the current fellowship-trained Mohs surgeons will not like being grouped with the nonfellowship-trained surgeons, whom they consider their inferiors and who will now have the opportunity to be board certified.
The name of the fellowship, which is “micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology,” also has some paranoid types fearing that they will lose the right to treat skin cancer if such a subspecialty is created. That shouldn’t be an issue, since all dermatologists are trained in residency to treat skin cancer. The formal fellowships already exist. There are already 1,600 fellowship-trained Mohs surgeons out there, and they have not cornered the market on skin cancer. The situation should not change since general dermatologists remain the gatekeepers – and entry point – for most skin cancer patients. Certification exams in dermatopathology and pediatric dermatology have not had a negative impact on general dermatologists, who still read their own slides and see kids for skin disease. In fact, having dermatopathology as a certified part of dermatology has been a huge benefit in our struggle to maintain the right to read our own slides.
Developing a certification exam would take at least 2 years if the American Board of Dermatology decided to do it. There would be no “grandfathering” automatic certification. Everyone would have to take the same exam – young, old, formally trained, or not.
Members of the American Board of Dermatology explained the qualifiers to sit for an exam (if there was an exam) at a summit I held in Cincinnati in 2015. They are interested in including all ABD dermatologists who currently practice Mohs surgery, fellowship trained or not. Suggested parameters included any ABD fellow whose practice is 20% Mohs and reconstructive surgery (by volume or income), or anyone who performs Mohs once a week. Fellowship-trained micrographic surgeons could be eligible, and this would be a self-attestation! There would be no case log reviews, no visits by inspectors, no secret questions or passwords. This pathway would remain open for 5 years as were the exams for dermatopathology and pediatric dermatology. After that point, only ACGME fellowship–trained Mohs surgeons would be eligible to take the exam.
Upsides to this approach include decreasing divisiveness in the specialty, creating a better brand, and elevating the specialty. A board certification will help in obtaining a Medicare specialty designation, which will help stop the delisting of Mohs surgeons from insurance networks based on their average charges compared with general dermatologists. This action would particularly help small practices.
The American Academy of Dermatology board of directors sent this issue to the education committee to inform and poll the membership. You should expect to hear more about the proposed process. As an AAD member, you will get to express your opinion so make sure you are well informed. The AAD membership opinion will be important in whether or not the American Board of Dermatology decides to pursue this. Remember, this is an American Board of Dermatology decision, not an AAD decision.
More reasons for a board certification include that the ACGME expects its fellowships to develop a board exam at some point (although not all have). The 1,000 ACGME fellowship–trained micrographic surgeons deserve a chance to be board certified, which is the medical profession’s way to demonstrate competence to the public.
Having all Mohs surgeons board certified would heal a huge rift in the house of dermatology, and give us a united, consistent face to present to other specialties, the Congress, and the media. Physicians are judged by their training and credentials. Love them or hate them, the ACGME is the gold standard. Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries would be those practicing Mohs who did not complete a formal fellowship. I think a board exam is overdue, and will be a boon to all of dermatology.
Dr. Coldiron is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. He is currently in private practice, but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics.