Goals, results, practicality of continuing education not very easy to measure

The continuing education of professionals has become a major industry among the doctors, lawyers, nurses, accountants, pharmacists and therapists of all modalities that it is designed to assist.  Debate has surfaced among legislators and within state and federal government agencies questioning whether the associated time and expense have been justified by the industrial product. 

In fact, there remains confusion over what that product actually is.  Should the desired result be defined and subsequently measured in terms of its impact on the professional learner, on the patient/client to be served or on a larger segment of the population in general?

A major requirement for recognized hours of CE credit by most accrediting or approving organizations is that topics of education be based upon identified needs among the target audience.  When that target is ill-defined, the assessment of results is equally vague and often misinterpreted by critical observers. 

A number of state legislative bodies have attempted to mandate certain continuing education topics for professionals to obtain or retain licenses to practice.  For lawyers, who comprise a significant percentage of legislators, to define certain educational needs for physicians is about as valid as the reverse would be, and the benefits of mandated educational efforts have been questionable.

Many professionals are feeling an economic pinch from taking time away from the office, regardless of any perceived educational needs.  As a result, opportunities to combine family vacations/leisure time with CE studies are attractive and provide the potential additional incentive of cost write-offs. 

While this combination of time and expense may be desirable and educationally sound, the overall reduction in CE exposure and forced practice commitment has the potential for restricted educational benefit and increased professional fatigue or burn out, neither of which is in the best interest of the patient or client.

Are there practical solutions for this CE dilemma? Many professionals have resorted to Internet CE options and the available hours are rapidly increasing, but the loss of peer associations, faculty interactions and focused presentations of a well-planned CE activity are major sacrifices. 

The AMA, which owns the Category 1 designation for acceptable CME activities, has renamed its CME department “Continuous Professional Development” with clear emphasis on the maintenance of a stream of education from undergraduate school through medical college then post-graduate or residency training into the years of actual medical practice. 

However, as has been demonstrated in many fields of service, having a mastery of understanding does not automatically transfer into the mastery of application.

In a somewhat tangential direction, the Accreditation Council for CME, which accredits provider of CE for physicians so that they can award the AMA’s Category 1 designation, recently announced a new accreditation format.  The revised principles from the ACCME require that achieving the highest level of “Accreditation with Commendation” will “be determined by measuring the extent to which a provider engages within their environment as a participant in quality and patient safety improvement opportunities”.  How this will be applied remains to be seen.

Ultimately, whatever educational path is embraced by CE providers, the patients/clients (i.e., voting public) will judge the professional competence of professionals on the basis of demonstrated improvements – in healthcare for all ages, in pharmaceutical progress and access, in legal and legislative relief from household and environmental burdens and in a general feeling of well-being that can be traced to a sustained and respected professional delivery system. 

Individuals who complete professional training in all areas generally prefer to remain current in their ability to address the needs of patients and clients.  How this may best be achieved is actually a very personal choice and commitment.  Providers of continuing education must keep the options open and readily attainable and that may be one of the greatest challenges for this growing industry.

Hartfield is the executive director of education for Continuing Education Inc. For more information go to www.continuingeducation.net.