by Katelyn Miller, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, St. Dominic Hospital
Failure is success in progress. – Albert Einstein
The word “failure” often evokes a negative connotation, but it is a necessary part of learning and growing. However, when it comes time to address an underperforming trainee, student, or resident, many educators and preceptors find it hard to address and document the poor performance of trainees. Reports in medical literature across multiple healthcare disciplines have raised concern about this “failure to fail” phenomenon and its prevalence.1 In one survey, 18% of 1,790 nursing mentors admitted to passing an underachieving student that should have failed.2 Another survey of ten American medical schools found that 74.5% of clinical preceptors indicated it was difficult to accurately assess poorly performing students because they were unwilling to record negative evaluations.3 As health professionals and educators, we have a responsibility to our patients and our professions to accurately evaluate trainees and ensure they become competent members of healthcare teams. To determine if a learner is sufficiently prepared, here is the critical question: Would I let this person take care of my family member? If the answer is no, why is it so hard to act and deliver an accurate evaluation of an underperforming trainee’s performance?
A systematic review article recently published in the Medical Teacher examined both qualitative and quantitative studies relating to evaluators’ willingness and perceived ability to report unsatisfactory performance in health professions education.1 The authors identified six barriers that assessors face when addressing an underperforming trainee:
- The Burden and Risks of Failing Someone. Assessors reported that the amount of time and paperwork required to fail a trainee is a deterrent. In the health professions, preceptors and educators often have multiple responsibilities, and student evaluations are often given lower priority. Assessors also express a hesitancy to fail underperforming trainees due to fear of litigation or worries that it would negatively affect the professional reputation of the assessor.1
- Guilt and Self-Blame: Assessors reported an emotional toll, including feelings of guilt and self-blame, connected to failing a trainee. These feelings are increased if the assessor has developed a close relationship with the trainee. Assessors often want to avoid conflict with the trainee and feel that failing the trainee could be perceived as uncaring behavior, which is difficult in a profession dedicated to caring for others like healthcare.1
- Trainee Considerations. Assessors were reluctant to fail someone based on the trainee’s stage within the program. With trainees who are in the earliest stages in the curriculum, assessors indicated they were reluctant because they believed the learner could improve with time. Ironically, assessors were equally reluctant to fail trainees that were advanced in their training because they had already invested much time and money. Assessors also worried about the negative effect that failing would have on the trainee’s emotional stability, career goals, and self-esteem.1
- Questionable Assessments. Assessors reported a lack of confidence in their ability to accurately evaluate trainees due to feeling unprepared, a lack of training, or a lack of experience. As a result, they questioned their judgment and were willing to give underperforming trainees “the benefit of the doubt.” Assessors also reported a lack of confidence in the tools they used to assess trainees. They expressed uncertainty about what the expectations should be for trainees at different stages of training and questioned whether the evaluation tools being used were appropriate or objective.1
- Institutional Support. Assessors reported feeling pressured to pass students and feared they would not be supported by the institution if they failed a student. Assessors also considered the loss of financial support for the institution that would result from failing a student.1
- Unsatisfactory Remediation. Assessors were reluctant to fail a trainee if there was no remediation available or if they deemed the available remediation unsatisfactory. Assessors also expressed angst about the timeliness of remediation and whether remediation would be long enough to adequately address the performance problems.1
Conversely, the authors also identified three factors that enabled assessors to fail a failing trainee. These include the assessor’s sense of responsibility and duty to the profession, support from the institution, and the availability of remediation for the trainee.1
While this review of literature helps us to understand the “failure to fail” phenomenon, no quick or easy solution exists. Some experts suggest a narrative-based approach is needed in order to help assessors overcome barriers to providing corrective feedback and delivering unsatisfactory evaluations.3 Providing feedback that clearly indicates the specific areas of improvement can help guide underperforming students to address poor skills or knowledge and “shift the focus from evaluating to understanding and teaching” the learner.3 Even with a shift from quantitative to qualitative evaluation methods, several barriers will persist.
To ensure patient safety and the quality of care delivered by future health professionals, I believe all schools should institute standardized, formal training of preceptors, educators, and anyone who will be evaluating trainees. Institutions should require new assessors to complete training that teaches them how to accurately use evaluation tools, how to articulate concerns, and how to deliver difficult messages. The training program should make clear the remediation opportunities available to address performance problems and emphasize a competency-based approach to teaching and learning. Institutions should make it explicitly clear what resources are available, including the support systems available to address the assessor’s negative emotions and the mental toll that comes with failing a trainee.
I believe a mental shift in healthcare education is needed. We should acknowledge that competency is the primary goal and that everyone progresses at different paces. Not everyone will graduate at the same time, and that is okay! It is important for educators to accept their responsibility to future patients and the potential harm that could result from failing to fail underperforming trainees.
- Yepes-Rios M, Dudek N, Duboyce R, Curtis J, Allard RJ, Varpio L. The failure to fail underperforming trainees in health professions education: A BEME systematic review: BEME Guide No. 42. Medical Teacher. 2016;38(11):1092-1099.
- Brown L, Douglas V, Garrity J, Shepard CK. What influences mentors to pass or fail students. Nursing Management. 2012;19(5)16–21.
- McConnell M, Harms S, Saperson K. Meaningful Feedback in Medical Education: Challenging the “Failure to Fail” Using Narrative Methodology. Acad Psychiatry. 2016;40(2):377-379.