On Step 1 Mania, USMLE Score Reporting, and Financial Conflict of Interest at the National Board of Medical Examiners

Acad Med. 2020 Sep;95(9):1332-1337. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000003126.


Though intended to inform a binary decision on initial medical licensure, the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is frequently used for screening candidates for residency positions. Some have argued that reporting results as pass/fail would honor the test's purpose while preventing inappropriate use. To date, the USMLE's sponsor organizations have declined to make such a change. In this Perspective, the authors examine the history and mission of the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME), trace the rise of "Step 1 mania," and consider the current financial incentives for the NBME in implementing a pass/fail score-reporting policy.The NBME was founded in 1915 to address the lack of interstate reciprocity in medical licensure examination. With the creation of the USMLE in 1992, a single pathway for licensure was established, and the organization's original mission was achieved. Yet even after fulfilling its primary purpose, the NBME-classified as a nonprofit organization-has seen its revenues rise dramatically over the past 2 decades. Much of the increased revenue is derived from test products and services not required for medical licensure, with sales driven by the increasing importance of Step 1 scores in residency selection. Revenue from these products and services would likely decline if the NBME reported Step 1 results as pass/fail.A financial conflict of interest occurs when a judgment concerning a primary interest may be influenced by a secondary interest, such as financial gain. The data presented here demonstrate that the NBME has a conflict of interest in its current score-reporting policy. Possible remedies, such as disclosure, recusal, divestiture, and restructuring, are considered.

MeSH terms

  • Conflict of Interest*
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / economics
  • Educational Measurement / economics
  • Educational Measurement / methods*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency
  • Licensure, Medical*
  • Students, Medical
  • United States