To some, the world of continuing medical education is all about credit. It’s a simple but misguided notion, a lasting myth held by several members of the federal Institute of Medicine, Congress, and even some CME providers. It starts with a basic premise: Physicians attend CME activities only because they are required to earn credits to maintain their licenses and certifications.

For example, many medical specialty boards require specialists to earn between 40 and 60 CME credits each year as part of their maintenance of certification. But the required credits have become a red herring in the CME arena, distracting our attention from what it is that really attracts physicians to CME.

In the past, those who raged against industry grant funding for CME based their arguments partly on this CME credit myth. Since physicians were “forced” to attend CME, it must somehow be a bad idea to allow about 45 percent of total CME funding to come from industry grants. After all, physicians are held hostage by the CME credit Goliath, right?

As usual, the truth is less sexy but much more telling than the myth.

Learning, Not Earning
“CME is almost all about the learning and very little to do with earning credit,” says Lisa Hunsicker, MD, a board-certified reconstructive plastic surgeon based in Colorado. “I could earn a year’s worth of ‘required’ CME credits in a one-week society meeting.”

So, why attend more CME activities than the amount required by her specialty board?

“My colleagues and I enjoy learning from each other,” Hunsicker says. “The more we know, the better we practice. Regardless of the credit, accredited CME is good for healthcare.”

Hunsicker isn’t alone in her thinking. A survey of more than 40 live and online/enduring activities held during 2010 showed that many participants engage in CME without seeking the accompanying credit.

At the live activities that were audited, an average of 34 percent of attendees who participated in the entire activity did not seek the credit. For online activities, the average was even higher—about 52 percent of those surveyed completed the Web-based CME activities but did not request credit.

What does it mean that physicians are often not applying for CME credit? In short, the need is in knowledge, competency, and physician performance, not CME credit calculations.

The Proof Is in the Practice
Unlike college seniors, doctors don’t need a few more credits in order to graduate. They already are practicing the art of medicine. Accredited CME helps them become better artists, with or without the attending credit.

Perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on myths surrounding the amount of continuing education credit that physicians earn. The simple truth is this: The proof of CME’s value is in what medical professionals do with what they learn.

Stephen M. Lewis, MA, CCMEP, is president of Littleton, Colorado-based Global Education Group. He can be reached at slewis@globaleducationgroup.com.

More Stephen Lewis columns
Ringing In a New Era for CME
REMS: A New Trajectory for CME?
Is it Time to Thank the ACCME?"