The MRCGP CSA is a challenging exam, acting as an exit exam for GP training in the UK. In this article, Dr Mahibur Rahman discusses some key tips to help you prepare for and pass the exam.
- Understand the basics
The exam is based on a simulated surgery consisting of 13 cases played by simulated patients. The cases will include a range of disease areas and case types, with at least 1 child health case, and at least 2 cases that will significantly test prescribing knowledge. You will have 2 minutes to read the case notes before each consultation, and exactly 10 minutes for the consultation itself. There will be a different examiner with each simulated patient, assessing the same 3 domains in every case: data gathering (history and examination), clinical management (including diagnosis, management, follow up and safety netting), and interpersonal skills (clear explanations, empathy and sensitivity and having a patient-centred approach).
Each domain is graded as either clear pass (3 marks), pass (2 marks), fail (1 mark) or clear fail (0 marks). The total score from all 13 cases determines whether you pass or fail the exam. The pass mark is adjusted each day to take account for the level of difficulty of the cases, but usually ranges from 72-78 out of 117. The total score is the only thing that determines if you pass or fail – there is no minimum score in each case. A candidate that scored 9 in several cases could get 0 in some cases and still pass i.e. you pass or fail the exam as a whole, rather than individual cases.
- Join a study group
Forming a study group early on in your preparation for CSA – 6-9 months prior to your exam – can help in many ways. A good number to meet for a study session is 3 – one to be the doctor, one the patient, and one to observe and provide feedback. Some candidates find that being observed makes them nervous and affects their performance – having a colleague observe and be the “examiner” can simulate some of that pressure and over time, help to overcome it. It is also easier for someone observing and making notes to give useful feedback. Agree in advance the importance of being honest and constructive when giving feedback – some registrars feel shy to say anything critical and just focus on the positives when observing others. While this might make you feel good, it won’t help you improve.
Putting yourself in the role of the examiner with a clearly defined mark scheme can also help give an insight into the importance of clearly demonstrating the criteria in the different domains.
- Seek feedback regularly
Try to get feedback on your consulting whenever possible. This can be through consultation observation tool (COT) assessments, joint surgeries, during out of hours (OOH) sessions and also during tutorials. Video can be a useful tool – you can watch a few recorded consultations with your trainer, but it can also be helpful to watch some of these back later yourself to pick up on things like body language and non-verbal cues from the patient. It can be helpful to get different perspectives, so ask for other doctors at your practice to observe you and give feedback.
- Observe how others consult
Try to do some “reverse” joint surgeries – where you sit in and observe your trainer and other team members consult. This can be a good way to pick up useful tips and good habits from experienced colleagues. You may have a doctor in the team that has a lot of women’s health experience, and may be able to tweak how you explain certain conditions based on their approach. Sitting in with the practice nurse during an asthma clinic might give you some ideas on things like demonstrating inhaler technique or discussing spirometry. Don’t feel that you have to do everything the same way your colleagues do – it is important that you consult in a way that is comfortable and natural to you. You may find that you can adapt your own style and add in what works from others.
- Prepare for challenging cases
It is important identify areas you find challenging and actively prepare for them. If you find it difficult to take sexual health history because you get embarrassed when asking sensitive but important questions relating to risk factors for sexually transmitted infections, you should practise this until you can do it confidently. If you do not see many women with gynaecological issues, you could go through important areas of the history and examination in a tutorial or with your study group. Equally, if you have not treated many patients with testicular problems, or erectile dysfunction, you should revise the key parts of the history, examination and management. Try going through the CSA case checklist in the MPS MRCGP Study Guide and go over any areas that you are not confident in. Practise telephone consultations as it can be challenging taking a history when you do not have some of the non-verbal cues that we rely on in clinic.
- Learn to manage your time effectively
You have 2 minutes to read the case notes, and exactly 10 minutes to get through each case. Candidates that regularly struggle to complete cases will often get a low score for the management domain, as they may not have had time to discuss treatment options, or to talk about follow up and safety netting. Try to get comfortable with getting through your consultation in 10-12 minutes the month before sitting the exam. You may still be on 15 minute slots, but try to use the last few minutes to type up your notes. It is very difficult for a candidate who regularly needs 16-17 minutes per case in surgery to suddenly shave several minutes from their consulting time in the exam.
A common myth about the CSA is that it is all about communication skills. While good communication is an essential part of being a good GP, this is only a third of the marks in each case – the other two thirds relate to clinical areas.
Data gathering is about history and examination – it is important to be able to take a focused, systematic history. If you spend too long on the history by asking vague or irrelevant general questions you may find that you get a poor mark for data gathering, and also run out of time and get a poor score for the clinical management domain. Candidates often lose marks in this domain by failing to ask about relevant red flag symptoms to exclude rarer but serious conditions, or forgetting to request an essential examination.
There is a lot to cover in the management domain to get a clear pass – you need to allow enough time to go through the diagnosis, discuss management options, cover other important risks, and to discuss follow up and safety netting. This will usually take 3-4 minutes to cover well. You can also lose marks if your proposed management plan is not in line with current evidence – a good knowledge of current guidelines is very important.
In the interpersonal domain, you may lose marks if you do not build a good rapport, or take on board the patient’s agenda. Work on being able to explain investigations, diagnoses and results in clear, concise language without using technical jargon. Pay attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues – it is important to explore them as there may be an important symptom or issue that will only come out when the cue is explored.
- It’s not enough to know it, to get marks you have to show it
Examiners can only mark observed behaviours, so it is important to demonstrate your knowledge and skills clearly in each domain. For example, in the clinical management domain for a case of newly diagnosed Stage 2 hypertension in a 50 year old, a candidate that informed the patient that they would be “starting a once daily tablet for your blood pressure” would not get the marks for correct management. A candidate that made it clear that they would be starting the patient on a suitable dose of an ACE inhibitor would. Similarly, a patient with a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) with high risk of stroke needs to be seen within 24 hours by a specialist according to the current guidelines. A candidate that did not make the timeframe clear may not get the marks. For example, saying “I will arrange for the specialists to see you urgently” is unclear in this situation – as a 2 week referral is urgent, but not appropriate for a patient at high risk of stroke. Making it clear that you would arrange for the specialists to see the patient “within the next 24 hours” would be much better.
Treat the CSA as a regular 13 patient clinic, with the benefit of a break halfway through, and without having to write up any notes on the computer. Do not do any acting – the only person doing any role play should be the simulated patient. You should be doing the same things you would do with a similar case in real life. Some candidates make up false options that they would never offer in real life or pretend to write a prescription rather than using the sample prescription on the table. This looks awkward and unnatural, and can be embarrassing when the patient points out that there is nothing there! Imagine the examiner is not there – do not look at them, talk to them, or try to engage them in any way – they are there to mark the case, not to influence the outcome. You should focus on the patient, and give them your full attention – just as you would in surgery. If you think there is a relevant examination, you should ask the patient if you can examine, rather than asking the examiner. If you would offer a chaperone for an examination in real life, offer one in the exam. Getting regular practice in your study group or in a joint surgery can help you get used to consulting with an observer in a way that does not affect your focus on the patient.
- Focus only on the case at hand
In an exam with 13 cases, it is quite normal to have 1 or 2 cases that either don’t go as well as you would have liked, or that include a rare or high challenge presentation. Remember that a bad performance in any case can be compensated by doing well in others. Just do your best to listen carefully to the patient, try to be safe, and to communicate clearly. At the end of the case, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go into the next case with a positive attitude – otherwise 1 poor case can go on to affect how you score on the next few and have a much bigger impact on your overall score.
The MRCGP CSA is a challenging exam with a significant failure rate. To pass, you need to demonstrate that you have the skills and knowledge to practise safely without supervision – from taking a structured history and focused examination to being up-to-date with your management. You need to show that you can communicate clearly and effectively with the patient, and engage them appropriately. Finally, you need to be able to manage your time well to get through everything in 10 minutes. Like any skill, consulting well improves with practise – you can get this by seeing patients in clinic, with your trainer in a tutorial and in a study group with your colleagues. Best wishes with your exam!
Dr Mahibur Rahman passed the MRCGP CSA with merit in 2007, and has since helped several thousand registrars prepare for their MRCGP exams in his role as medical director of Emedica. He teaches an intensive MRCGP CSA preparation course with a focus on lots of practise with detailed feedback and exposure to over 30 role plays with simulators in 1 day + 65 further cases to practise after the course.