Australian exam “shambles” forces registrars into resits

Authors: Paul Smith 

Publication date:  22 Feb 2018

Over 1000 registrars will have to retake their medical exams after an IT meltdown forced the Royal Australasian College of Physicians to abort its online test.

It was the first time the college had used computers for its Written Divisional exam, which registrars must pass to progress to advanced training.

The exam was held at test centres in 16 cities in Australia and New Zealand on 19 February. But an “unknown technical fault” prevented some candidates from logging back on after the lunch break.

One doctor, who did not want to be named, said that an error message flashed up on her screen as she finished the first part of the exam. “They couldn’t tell me what it meant,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. She was initially reassured that her answers from the first part of the exam had not been lost. But she was then “told the server crashed and we couldn’t start the second part of the examination . . . it was a shambles.”

Another doctor described her experience of the exam as “horrific, distressing, upsetting, and worst of all . . . I have to keep studying.”

Other candidates said that they had completed the full five hour exam without any IT hiccups only to be informed that it been scrapped. One said that she found out that the exam had been aborted only through a WhatsApp group, not from the college.

The college issued a string of apologies and has set a new exam date for 2 March. It added that it will not charge candidates the A$1800 (£1014; €1146; US$1411) test fee for the resit.

But the bungle has fuelled anger among the college’s 23 000 members, and the college president, Catherine Yelland, has faced calls to resign. In a message to the registrars published on the college website the day after the exam, she wrote: “On behalf of the board and personally, I apologise for the events yesterday . . . I remember sitting the written exam in 1985 very clearly, and have some understanding of the stress before the exam.

“Many of you have had to make other arrangements [to resit the test] when you were looking forward to family events, a holiday or a short break from study.”

She said that the college had launched an investigation and demanded an explanation from Pearson Vue, the company it contracted to run the exam.

One college member, Ian Kerridge, a haematologist and bone marrow transplant physician at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, said that he has answered calls from dozens of registrars upset by their experiences.

“There is a lot of anger and disbelief among registrars about what happened,” he said. “There needs to be an independent inquiry, and the president should be considering her position. One of the biggest questions is simply why there was no adequate plan B in place in the event of computer failure.”

The Australian Medical Association has also intervened to support the registrars. On 21 February its president, Michael Gannon, called on state health ministers to ensure that the registrars are given access to leave so that they can prepare for the resit. The Written Divisional exam is considered so important that some states in Australia are contractually obliged to give registrars three full days of study leave from their work in the public hospitals the week before the exam.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said that it would use a “trusted provider” to run the resit.

Paul Smith Sydney

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