Defining the “Problem Resident” and the Implications of the Unfixable Problem: The Rationale for a “Front-door” Solution
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Defining the “Problem Resident” and the Implications of the Unfixable Problem: The Rationale for a “Front-door” Solution


Introduction: Problem residents are common in graduate medical education, yet little is known about their characteristics, deficits, and the consequences for emergency medicine (EM) residencies. The American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) defines a problem resident as “a trainee who demonstrates a significant enough problem that requires intervention by someone of authority, usually the program director [PD] or chief resident.” Although this is a comprehensive definition, it lacks specificity. Our study seeks to add granularity and nuance to the definition of “problem resident,” which can be used to guide the recruitment, selection, and training of residents. 

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews with a convenience sample of EM PDs between 2011 and 2012. We performed qualitative analysis of the resulting transcripts with our thematic analysis based on the principles of grounded theory. We reached thematic sufficiency after 17 interviews. Interviews were coded as a team through consensus. 

Results: The analysis identified diversity in the type, severity, fixability, and attribution of problems among problem residents. PDs applied a variety of thresholds to define a problem resident with many directly rejecting the ABIM definition. There was consistency in defining academic problems and some medical problems as “fixable.” In contrast, personality problems were consistently defined as “non-fixable.” Despite the diversity of the definition, there was consensus that residents who caused “turbulence” were problem residents.

Conclusion: The ABIM definition of the problem resident captures trainees who many PDs do not consider problem residents. We propose that an alternative definition of the problem resident would be “a resident with a negative sphere of influence beyond their personal struggle.” This combination acknowledges the identified themes of turbulence and the diversity of threshold. Further, the combination of PDs’ unwillingness to terminate trainees and the presence of non-fixable problems implies the need for a “front-door” solution that emphasizes personality issues at the potential expense of academic potential. This “front-door” solution depends on the commitment of all stakeholders including medical schools, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and PDs.

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