Any conversation about point-of-care ultrasound (POCUS) inevitably brings up discussion about credentialing, privileging, and certification. While credentialing and privileging are institution-specific processes, competency certification can be extramural through a national board or intramural through an institutional process.
Some institutions have begun to develop intramural certification pathways for POCUS competency in order to grant privileges to hospitalists. In this edition of the Journal of Hospital Medicine, Mathews and Zwank2 describe a multidisciplinary collaboration to provide POCUS training, intramural certification, and quality assurance for hospitalists at one hospital in Minnesota. This model serves as a real-world example of how institutions are addressing the need to certify hospitalists in basic POCUS competency. After engaging stakeholders from radiology, critical care, emergency medicine, and cardiology, institutional standards were developed and hospitalists were assessed for basic POCUS competency. Certification included assessments of hospitalists’ knowledge, image acquisition, and image interpretation skills. The model described by Mathews did not assess competency in clinical integration but laid the groundwork for future evaluation of clinical outcomes in the cohort of certified hospitalists.
Although experts may not agree on all aspects of competency in POCUS, most will agree with the basic principles outlined by Mathews and Zwank. Initial certification should be based on training and an initial assessment of competency. Components of training should include ultrasound didactics, mentored hands-on practice, independent hands-on practice, and image interpretation practice. Ongoing certification should be based on quality assurance incorporated with an ongoing assessment of skills. Additionally, most experts will agree that competency can be recognized, and formative and summative assessments that combine a gestalt of provider skills with quantitative scoring systems using checklists are likely the best approach.
The real question is, what is the goal of certification of POCUS competency? Development of an institutional certification process demands substantive resources of the institution and time of the providers. Institutions would have to invest in equipment and staff to operate a full-time certification program, given the large number of providers that use POCUS and justify why substantive resources are being dedicated to certify POCUS skills and not others. Providers may be dissuaded from using POCUS if certification requirements are burdensome, which has potential negative consequences, such as reverting back to performing bedside procedures without ultrasound guidance or referring all patients to interventional radiology.
Conceptually, one may speculate that certification is required for providers to bill for POCUS exams, but certification is not required to bill, although institutions may require certification before granting privileges to use POCUS. However, based on the emergency medicine experience, a specialty that has been using POCUS for more than 20 years, billing may not be the main driver of POCUS use. A recent review of 2012 Medicare data revealed that <1% of emergency medicine providers received reimbursement for limited ultrasound exams.3 Despite the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) requirement for POCUS competency of all graduating emergency medicine residents since 2001 and the increasing POCUS use reported by emergency medicine physicians,4,5 most emergency medicine physicians are not billing for POCUS exams. Maybe use of POCUS as a “quick look” or extension of the physical examination is more common than previously thought. Although billing for POCUS exams can generate some clinical revenue, the benefits for the healthcare system by expediting care,6,7 reducing ancillary testing,8,9 and reducing procedural complications10,11 likely outweigh the small gains from billing for limited ultrasound exams. As healthcare payment models evolve to reward healthcare systems that achieve good outcomes rather than services rendered, certification for the sole purpose of billing may become obsolete. Furthermore, concerns about billing increasing medical liability from using POCUS are likely overstated because few lawsuits have resulted from missed diagnoses by POCUS, and most lawsuits have been from failure to perform a POCUS exam in a timely manner.12,13
Many medical students graduating today have had some training in POCUS14 and, as this new generation of physicians enters the workforce, they will likely view POCUS as part of their routine bedside evaluation of patients. If POCUS training is integrated into medical school and residency curricula, and national board certification incorporates basic POCUS competency, then most institutions may no longer feel obligated to certify POCUS competency locally, and institutional certification programs, such as the one described by Mathews and Zwank, would become obsolete.
For now, until all providers enter the workforce with basic competency in POCUS and medical culture accepts that ultrasound is a diagnostic tool available to any trained provider, hospitalists may need to provide proof of their competence through intramural or extramural certification. The work of Mathews and Zwank provides an example of how local certification processes can be established. In a future edition of the Journal of Hospital Medicine, the Society of Hospital Medicine Point-of-Care Ultrasound Task Force will present a position statement with recommendations for certification of competency in bedside ultrasound-guided procedures.
Nilam Soni receives support from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Quality Enhancement Research Initiative (QUERI) Partnered Evaluation Initiative Grant (HX002263-01A1). Brian P. Lucas receives support from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Research and Development and Dartmouth SYNERGY, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Translational Science (UL1TR001086). The contents of this publication do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or the United States Government.