In this article, the authors present a historic overview of the development of medical education in the United States and Europe (in particular the Netherlands), as it relates to the issues of time (duration of the course) and proficiency (performance requirements and examinations). This overview is necessarily limited and based largely on post hoc interpretation, as historic data on time frames are not well documented and the issue of competence has only recently been addressed.During times when there were few, if any, formal regulations, physicians were primarily "learned gentlemen" in command of few effective practical skills, and the duration of education and the competencies acquired by the end of a course simply did not appear to be issues of any interest to universities or state authorities. Though uniform criteria gradually developed for undergraduate medical education, postgraduate specialty training remained, before accreditation organizations set regulations, at the discretion of individual institutions and medical societies. This resulted in large variability in training time and acquired competencies between residency programs, which were often judged on the basis of opaque or questionable criteria. Considering the high costs of health care today and the increasing demand for patient safety and educational efficiency, continuing historic models of nonstandardized practices will no longer be feasible. Efforts to constrain, restructure, and individualize training time and licensing tracks to optimize training for safe care, both in the United States and Europe, are needed.