Derm residents cheating: ABD responds to CNN story

February 8, 2012

The American Board of Dermatology has warned residents that the practice of using so-called “airplane notes” to cheat on certification exams is illegal, the board’s executive director says.

Detroit - The American Board of Dermatology has warned residents that the practice of using so-called “airplane notes” to cheat on certification exams is illegal, the board’s executive director says.

But a CNN story alleges that doctors studying to become dermatologists have for years shared exam questions by memorizing and writing them down after the test.

According to CNN, in 2008 the Detroit-based ABD received an email from a resident regarding the sharing exam questions that test-takers write down on the plane ride home after taking the certification qualifier.

The anonymous resident - now a practicing dermatologist - wrote: “The board needs to know that there is an organized effort year after year to, by verbatim, reproduce each and every question of the official ABD certifying examination minutes after its completion.” These “airplane notes,” well-known to dermatology residents, are “compiled, typed up and quietly distributed among residency programs across the country,” the doctor alleges.

CNN reports that in response to the email, ABD Executive Director Antoinette Hood, M.D., wrote: “The board takes every precaution to discourage this practice amongst graduating residents,” including maintaining strict security, minimizing the number of previously used questions, and requiring two signatures on an honor code statement that declares that information will not be shared. “Unfortunately, we have no mechanism for enforcing the honor code or controlling interpersonal communications that occur after an examination,” she states. “The real issue is how do we police professionalism and how do we identify the offenders?”

Dr. Hood told CNN she has addressed the issue for several years during the board’s annual meeting by telling dermatology residents the practice is not allowed. The board has warned residents that using airplane notes is illegal, because the test questions are copyrighted, CNN reports.

“But, of much greater importance, this practice is unethical and violates our professionalism and ethical standards, which are the basis for the trust given us by our patients,” a board newsletter stated.

According to CNN, the ABD scrambles the approximately 300 questions from test to test to make memorizing them more difficult. About 20 percent of the questions each year are recycled from old tests, compared with about 50 percent for the written exam in radiology - another specialty, according to CNN, within which similar cheating occurs.

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