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More than 1,400 aspiring GPs around Australia have had their career paths thrown into chaos by technical faults that forced the cancellation and rescheduling of key exams.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the body that administers the exams, has acknowledged the technology used to allow general practice registrars to sit the exams remotely using their own computers – a Covid-19 measure – suffered such a serious malfunction that not one of the 1,436 candidates was able to complete the first of the two exams on Friday.
Scores of trainee GPs have since complained that the issues ranged from buttons and options in their online test not loading, to repeated glitches throughout different questions.
Others reported being completely unable to load the exam, while there were also concerns some of the proctors, or exam supervisors, who were remotely watching registrars take the exam via webcam, could not understand English sufficiently when asked questions about instructions.
The experience left registrars who had studied for months and paid almost $5,000 to sit the exam “devastated and mentally exhausted”, and unsure whether they would be able to go through the process again.
After learning of the problems that beset Friday’s Key Feature Problem exam, the RACGP cancelled the Applied Knowledge test scheduled for Saturday.
The exams, which had been delayed from their original dates in July to allow the RACGP to set up the remote systems, are the final step in a years-long process towards fellowship – when a registrar becomes a registered general practitioner in Australia.
Registrars must pay $4,660 to sit the exam, and must pay the fee again if they fail and need to resit.
Now the Australian Medical Association, General Practice Registrars Australia and several registrars enrolled to sit the exam are pleading with the RACGP to urgently clarify how and when the rescheduled exams will be run.
In a statement released on Saturday the AMA president, Omar Khorshid, said serious concerns had been raised about the testing technology during trial exams run by the RACGP two weeks before Friday’s test.
“The AMA extends its support to the aspiring general practitioners who have put their lives on hold, taken leave from work, and now no longer know when their training will finish,” Khorshid said.
The chair of the AMA’s council of doctors in training, Hash Abdeen, said “it is imperative that we have answers for the affected trainees as soon as possible”.
The president of the GPRA, Sama Balasubramanian, said there had “been a lack of communication with candidates and examiners” on Friday, who were “left with virtually no information and lengthy waiting periods in the hope of being able to complete their exam” that day.
“Candidates will have put in many, many long hours of preparation to give themselves the best opportunity for success today. They have sacrificed this time, at the expense of family and loved ones, in order to prepare for this assessment.”
He said the anxiety had been exacerbated by the fact that many of those taking the exam had been involved in the pandemic response.
Balasubramanian told Guardian Australia the RACGP needed to acknowledge the “substantial costs” and lost income borne by those sitting the exams, and needed to be flexible when allowing them to resit them.
One registrar, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising their career, told Guardian Australia they had slept for no more than six hours a night and missed out on family events to study over recent months, with the expectation they would be free from the “crushing pressure” of the exams on Saturday.
“Twenty-one months of study had just gone up in smoke,” he said, after learning his test was cancelled.
“The RACGP is ultimately responsible for … the costs of study I am now going to have to pay again, the hours of work I am going to have to give up to study (unpaid leave this time, because all my annual leave will be gone), the financial costs and lost earnings accruing from ongoing delays in achieving fellowship,” he said.
“I don’t know how I can raise my head and embrace the exhaustion again,” he said.
Another registrar, who also requested anonymity, said they felt “numb” from the experience, explaining that they were unaware other registrars were experiencing the same glitches until well after the exam’s sitting had concluded.
“Not only are we devastated and mentally exhausted but [we underwent] the trauma of being alone in a room with no one replying or answering calls while your system is crashing,” they said.
“We’re hoping the RACGP will appropriately compensate us.”
The RACGP’s Facebook page has been flooded with comments after it posted a statement apologising for the glitches, with many calling for financial compensation.
A spokeswoman for the college, Genevieve Yates, told Guardian Australia the RACGP “apologises unreservedly for the significant disruption this has caused candidates”.
She said an overseas server failure affected the video conferencing software relied on for proctors to monitor the exam remotely.
“Hundreds of candidates … have openly expressed disappointment, anger and frustration, and we appreciate there is very little we can say to make those affected feel better.”
She said counselling had been offered.
The college did not respond to questions about financially compensating registrars for lost income and leave.
Guardian Australia understands the RACGP board will meet on Monday to discuss rescheduling the exams.
Earlier this year hundreds of trainee physicians reported distress over the rescheduling of their exams due to the pandemic. The Australasian College of Physicians also had to apologise when a “technical glitch” forced hundreds of trainee doctors to resit an exam in 2018.
Source: The Guardian
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