21 Feb 2018

'It's such a hard exam ... and we have to do it all over again'

10:45 am on 21 February 2018

Some resident doctors will have to re-sit a career-defining test after an IT meltdown meant 120 of them couldn't finish their online theory exam.

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Photo: 123rf

Doctors who planned to specialise as physicians and paedeatricians will now have to resit one of the most difficult tests they will ever have to do and it's pushed some of them to breaking point, the national secretary of the Resident Doctors' Association Dr Deborah Powell said.

Dr Tim Hopgood from Middlemore Hospital had been preparing for the test for two years, studying everyday after work.

"That is the common expectation and the common course for everyone who sits this exam. You don't go out and socialise you don't have time to do a lot of stuff. You literally go home and you study," he said.

The test is offered once a year and has a 30 percent fail rate. This was the first year the Basic Training Written Divisional Exam was done online instead of on paper.

It was well known in medical circles to be the most stressful and difficult exam, Dr Hopgood said.

"It's just such a hard exam, such a high-stakes exam, and we have to do it all over again."

Dr Hopgood sat his test in Wellington and the supervisors told the group after the lunch break there would be a delay because of an IT fault.

His group finished the test, despite the delays, but colleagues in Auckland were locked in the test room without any updates for four hours, he said.

"There were some people who were breaking down crying, screaming. There were some people who were trying to meditate to relieve their stress and other people came up and screamed at them.

"Doctors are naturally empathetic people but clearly this whole process has pushed them so far to the brink that they're breaking."

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has apologised profusely and an independent inquiry into the company that provided the exam, Pearson VUE, was now under way.

Sitting the test was a stressful time for doctors and the computer glitch had only added to that, the College's New Zealand president Dr Jonathan Christiansen said.

"We do know that it's a computer-based technical problem that meant that papers being sat on the computers were essentially locking the candidates out."

The plan to have a paper-based resit next Friday was the backup plan the College had if a technical issue arose, he said.

But even for those who finished the exam, like Dr Hopgood, they would still need to resit the exam, Dr Christiansen said.

"There have been such significant disruptions even to those people who finished and the stress of the lock outs and other things that we don't feel it would be a fair representation of the skill they want to demonstrate in an exam even if they did actually technically complete."

But that was little solace to the Resident Doctors' Association members who had come forward distraught and in tears, national secretary Dr Deborah Powell said.

There would be huge logistical nightmares for district health boards (DHBs) when rescheduling the doctors' rosters to make sure they had time off.

"We've said to the DHBs that's not acceptable [to work before the exam], you'll have to roster these people off you can't expect them to sit that exam in that sort of circumstance," she said.

"That means the DHBs will have to find other people to cover."

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians said it would work with DHBs to make sure the 120 trainees could resit next Friday.