Specialty board certification and clinical outcomes: the missing link

Acad Med. 2002 Jun;77(6):534-42. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200206000-00011.


Purpose: Specialty board certification status is often used as a standard of excellence, but no systematic review has examined the link between certification and clinical outcomes. The authors evaluated published studies tracking clinical outcomes and certification status.

Method: Data sources consisted of studies cited between 1966 and July 1999 in OVID-Medline, psychological abstracts (PsycLit), and the Educational Research Information Clearinghouse (ERIC). Screening criteria included: only U.S. patients and physicians used as subjects; verified specialty board certification status by an American Board of Medical Specialties' (ABMS') member board using the ABMS database or derivative sources; described selection criteria for patients and physicians; selected nationally recognized standards of care for outcomes; and nested patient data by individual physician. The computerized searches that were conducted in 1999 identified 1,204 papers; one author and a research assistant selected 237 papers based on subject relevance, and reduced the list to 56 based on study quality. The authors independently applied inclusion and exclusion criteria to identify 13 of the 56 papers containing 33 separable relevant findings.

Results: Of the 33 findings, 16 demonstrated a significant positive association between certification status and positive clinical outcomes, three revealed worse outcomes for certified physicians, and 14 showed no association. Three negative findings and one finding of no association were identified in two papers with insufficient case-mix adjustments in the analyses. Meta-analytic statistics were not feasible due to variability in outcome measures across studies.

Conclusions: Few published studies (5%) used research methods appropriate for the research question, and among the screened studies more than half support an association between board certification status and positive clinical outcomes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Accreditation / statistics & numerical data
  • Certification*
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Educational Status
  • Humans
  • Medicine / standards*
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care*
  • Specialization*
  • Specialty Boards*
  • United States