RCPE Press Release

26 January 2011

One of Scotland’s oldest medical institutions, the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), will today (26 January 2011) celebrate 150 years of overseeing the medical examination of doctors – an activity in which Scotland continues to lead the world.

The RCPE was founded in 1681 by doctors concerned with improving the public health and many of its Fellows have been at the forefront of international medicine from the Scottish Enlightenment to the present day. Since its inception, the RCPE has been responsible for setting up the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Medical School and, in more recent times, ASH Scotland. During this time, its primary objective has been to improve and maintain national and international standards of medical care in order that patients can access the best treatment available. In pursuit of this objective, its central activity has been developing and overseeing the Member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) postgraduate medical examination for doctors wishing to train as specialists – an examination which the RCPE has run individually, and more recently with its sister Colleges of Physicians in Glasgow and London, for the last 150 years. During this period the MRCP examination has become a leading internationally-recognised standard of clinical excellence and doctors from over 80 countries have travelled to Edinburgh to take the examination. Over 3000 candidates sat the MRCP examination through the RCPE last year alone.

To commemorate the anniversary of the RCPE’s examining activities, the RCPE has made a number of its papers to doctors and the public for the first time. The web pages offer a rare insight into the MRCP examination and show how the exam has evolved in order to enable doctors to be qualified to respond to emerging diseases. A range of over 300 historical examination paper questions can be viewed in their original form online and illustrate the topical medical issues of the day and the RCPE’s role in ensuring doctors were qualified to respond to them. Sample questions cover areas including suspected infanticide (1899), scarlet fever (1900), cholera (1906), contentious legislative proposals to sterilise people suffering from mental deficiency (1931), industrial dusts causing chronic lung disease (1932), complications entailed with antibiotic use (1955) and tuberculosis (1955).

The exam has continued to evolve and, in addition to setting questions on current clinical areas, has progressed beyond its original written and oral format into two written papers and a Practical Assessment of Clinical Examination Skills including doctors’ communication skills. Most recently, the College has responded to the increasing specialisation within medicine and, along with its sister Colleges, has developed MRCP(UK) Specialty Certificate Examinations (SCEs) in 12 specialty areas (i.e. cardiology, gastroenterology etc) in order to ensure that consultants, across the medical specialties, are adequately qualified to deal with a range of disease areas within their specialties. These SCEs use the latest computer-based testing and have become a mandatory requirement in a number of specialties for doctors wishing to complete their training and progress to consultant positions. The MRCP(UK) and SCE examinations play a fundamental part in ensuring the standards of care provided by today’s doctors along with other NHS activities including workplace based assessments.

Upon passing the MRCP(UK) examination, doctors are invited to join one of the 3 UK Colleges of Physicians as a Member. Over 10,000 doctors worldwide are currently Members or Fellows of the RCPE.

In addition to providing access to historical documents the web pages also include personal reminiscences and anecdotes from doctors who sat the exam, reflecting on their trepidation at sitting, and joy at passing, what is generally considered to be one of the most challenging medical exams internationally.

Dr Neil Dewhurst, President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, said,

“The College has a strong tradition of promoting and maintaining medical standards in which the public can be confident and we are proud of the international standing of our examination. In reaching 150 years of examining we have reached a significant milestone and will continue to promote the highest standards of medical care on behalf of patients and to ensure that the examination is responsive to changing needs.

“The work involved in running medical examinations is considerable and would not be possible without the voluntary support of the many hundreds of doctors who give their time every year in order to ensure that examination questions are valid and quality-assured, and to oversee the practical assessment of doctors’ examination skills. This also helps to ensure the professional independence and integrity of the examinations.

“The recent development of Specialty Certificate Examinations provides a further valuable mark of accreditation of a standard of medical competency and care which the public should come to expect of consultants and increasingly come to recognise, as these examinations are rolled out further.”