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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Step 2 CS, All You Need to Know

      The Step 2 CS (Clinical Skills) is the examination that was formerly known as the CSA. To put it as simply as possible, it is just an OSCE with loads of frills. Nothing difficult, I assure you. AKU graduates rarely fail the exam. However, you have to pass it in order to secure ECFMG certification (and hence any chance of matching). So, I would strongly advise that you do not take it too lightly, regardless of what anyone says. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to get a pre-match at the place of your dreams… and having to call them to tell them that you will not be able to join their program because you flunked the Step 2 CS…

Earlier, the TOEFL examination was also a requirement for ECFMG certification. However, since the transition from CSA to Step 2 CS, the TOEFL examination is no longer required. The Step 2 CS itself will be used to check your ability to communicate.

The examination is available to be given throughout the entire year, however, it must be given before a certain deadline. In the Match of 2005, this deadline was December 31st 2004. In the Match of 2004, the deadline was January 31st 2003. So, it keeps changing. You’ll have to check the ECFMG website ( for the latest information. (Note that the deadline for the Match of 2006 is December 31st again).

There are some recommended times that one should give this exam. The vast majority of applicants are going to visit the USA on a three month visit visa. In this period, it would be highly desirable to give the Step 2 CS, interview at a dozen programs, and perhaps even sit for the Step 3 examination, if you have time. The biggest constraint is the fact that the interview season lasts from November to January – itself being a three month period. So, in order to maximize your chances of getting everything done before your visa expires, schedule the Step 2 CS somewhere in early November. You’ll get it out of the way before you start interviewing. Also, since you’ll land in the USA in early November, you can continue to stay till early February, potentially enabling you to sit for the Step 3 examination.

Of course, the earlier you give the Step 2 CS, the better. It’ll speed up the process of ECFMG certification and enable you to get an earlier date for the Step 3. This, in turn, will allow an earlier processing of an H1B visa (if that’s what you’re going for). So, you see, everything is connected. Another fact is that program directors will be more keen on interviewing you and ranking you when you have passed more examinations. If you can secure a six month stay in the USA, sit for the Step 2 CS in, say, mid-October. Some people flew to the USA specifically for the purpose of giving the Step 2 CS early. However, to do this, you’d have to have a long term visa to start off with (e.g. five year multiple) and plenty of funding.

Being the fortunate ones you are, another opportunity has opened up for you lot – one which was not available to us. Earlier, passing the USMLE Step 1 examination was a prerequisite for application for Step 2 CS. That rule has been abolished. All you need now are two years of medical school. Consequently, my advice would be that one should sit for the Step 2 CS during one’s final year electives (if one is doing these in the USA). Any earlier would probably result in insufficient clinical and OSCE experience.

There are five centers in the USA where the Step 2 CS examination can be given:

·    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
·    Atlanta, Georgia
·    Los Angeles, California
·    Chicago, Illinois
·    Houston, Texas

Where you sit for the exam should not really make a difference. It did make a difference when the centers first sprung up in 2004 (earlier established centers dispatched results earlier).  However, since they have been functioning for more than a year now, I don’t think it will affect anybody anymore.

As for the fine print regarding the examination, I have quoted an extract (slightly edited in order to update), written by Zainab Samad, from Road to Residency. Updates have been written in non-italicized bold text. A couple of comments before I attach her material:

There is a new book in the market called “First Aid for the USMLE Step 2 CS (Clinical Skills Exam),” written by Vikas Bhushan and others. I would recommend this book for everyone. If one reads this and nothing else, it is more than sufficient. After familiarizing yourself with this book, if you feel you need more practice, then, go ahead and attempt the dozens of cases available in the Kaplan photocopy. More practice is always good. I spent a week of relaxed studying on this exam. However, one can get away with less. People pass the exam with a day or two of preparation (not that I would advise it!). The exam is all about being able to deal with the patient as a reflex. Therefore, grab a friend and practice, practice, practice. As far as Bates is concerned, one does not need to go over it if one is comfortable with physical examinations.

The Step 2 CS has three components (on the basis of which you’re marked):
o    Integrated Clinical Encounter (ICE) Subcomponent (Data gathering, Documentation)
o    Communication and Interpersonal Skills (CIS) Subcomponent (Questioning Skills, Information-sharing skills, Professional manner and rapport)
o    Spoken English Proficiency (SEP) Subcomponent

(Extract commences here…)


Before going for the exam, watch the video and the Candidate Orientation manual that they provide (the candidate orientation manual is now available online - If you are feeling very apprehensive, then read up the 47 cases given in the Kaplan CD photocopy. That gives a fair idea of what is tested in the exam. You can even go through the basic history and physical examination from Bates. The cases that generally come are very common complaints like chest pain, headache, backache, etc.  These have been time and again tested in our OSCEs and therefore do not pose a problem. And when you take the history, you’ll find that there is a wide differential. The history usually does not point to one specific diagnosis because they want to check whether you know the ‘right’ questions for those common complaints.
During the physical exam, check the relevant systems e.g. in a patient with chest pain, you would want to check the pulse, JVP, listen for crepitations in the lungs, feel the cardiac impulse, percuss the heart borders (or pretend to), listen to heart sounds, check for sternocostal tenderness, palpate the abdomen for any epigastric tenderness, and check for pedal edema. Most patients do not have physical findings. But in some cases, the patient may have real signs - crepitations with a COPD lung, an inflamed joint, etc. The patient may even mimic signs - loss of sensation or paralysis. So bottom line - keep your eyes and ears open.

During the patient encounter, you might get a ‘mean’ and ‘un-co-operative’ patient. Don’t worry. They are being deliberately mean. The trick is to be firm. Remain polite and try not to lose your temper.

There are 10-11 patient encounters (the 11th is usually not graded but you will not know which one is the 11th patient). One gets 15 minutes with each patient and then 10 minutes to write the patient note.  SO that makes 25 minutes for each patient encounter.
The actual encounter is marked on a checklist by the patient. The checklist is for communication skills, the questions in the history that you asked and the maneuvers you performed in the physical exam. The patient fills this out once you leave the room. So what matters is not how you percussed the patient but whether you did it at all or not. This makes it much easier than our regular OSCEs. There are also points for knocking before entering, washing hands, draping the patient etc., so one needs to remember those.

The Basic Format (that my friend Sultana came up with and that I found very useful), one should follow so that you don’t forget anything:

(Editor’s Note: Before you even knock at the door, pay attention to the case introduction written on the door. Read it carefully and jot down points on the clipboard. It is imperative to have your thoughts organized at this stage in order to avoid awkward pauses during the actual encounter. Write the name, age and any abnormal vital signs. You may even list your differential diagnoses. Write whatever mnemonic you use for history taking. Take your time at this stage and you will save time further on.)
1. Knock
2. Enter and address the patient by Mr. / Mrs. Surname
3. Introduce yourself as Dr. Surname
4. Walk to the sink, wash your hands and while you are at it, explain that you will  be doing a brief history and physical exam and will be discussing your impression with the patient.
5. Walk back to the patient and drape the legs (they are usually uncovered)
6. Sit or stand; whatever you find comfortable. Spend 5 minutes taking the history. Avoid using medical jargon. Ask both open ended and close-ended questions.
7. While taking the personal history, if the person smokes or drinks, counsel there and then...or one tends to forget near the end.
8. Spend 5 minutes on doing a focused and relevant physical exam.
9. Spend 5 minutes summarizing/reconfirming the history that you got, explaining to the patient what you think, he or she has, what investigations you think he/she should get. Remember to ask if he/she has any questions. (Editor’s Note: - Also ask the patient if there is anything else that he/she would like you to know. This provides the patient to guide you if you have been misled. Remember, the simulated patient is not out to get you).
10. Tell the patient when you would like to see him or her next. Say that it was nice meeting them. Walk out.
11. If you are done before time…then walk out and start on the note.
12. The patient note has to be written in legible clear handwriting. Practice on the sample sheet that they provide in the information booklet. Since there is less space on the paper, put only relevant points and important negatives down.

Avoid speaking to anyone inside or outside the exam center about the exam. You are not going to do any better by sharing your case histories or exams. But you might certainly end up paying for it if you do!!

Only people with serious problems in communication fail the exam (those who don’t know how to speak English) and since you are not in that category, you don’t need to worry.

Things to take with you to the exam center:

1) White Coat
2) Stethoscope
3) The CSA permit
4) Passport
5) They provide a pen
6) Dress professionally but comfortably (the way one dresses for a viva)
7) Panadol, lunch (if you think that the salad, fruit and chips that they provide will not whet your appetite. They have turkey sandwiches for those who are not too particular about halal food), and Chocolate if you want to. Coffee, soft drinks and water is provided.

Travel and Places to stay:

You can search yahoo for making a reservation at a hotel. Usually, the rates are lower if you book on the Internet.

Regarding the Philadephia center, the Marriott and the Divine Tracy are right opposite each other and 3-minute walk from the center. There are plenty of other places to stay. You can find them on the net.

Try and make it to the city at least a day prior. It is important to keep room for contingencies. Remember to put all the things that you are going to take to the exam center in a hand bag as one runs the risk of losing checked-in luggage.

For more detailed information, use the following link - “

(Extract ends here…)

Another thing which may prove useful… After giving the Step 2 CS, one tends to wait impatiently for the result, because one can only apply for the Step 3 after passing it (along with all the other exams, of course). At that point in time, even the wait between the dispatch (as told by OASIS) and the actual receipt of the result (by mail) seems long. A simple way of finding out if you have passed is by trying to apply for the Step 2 CS again (don’t worry, you will not be charged for trying!) After inputting your information, the website will tell you that you cannot apply for this examination because you have already cleared it. If this happens, you have passed! Apply away for your Step 3! If not, well, better luck next time!

1 comment:

  1. I can only imagine how stressful studying for the USMLE Step 2 CS can be. It is such a good thing that there are so many resources available for medical students to help them study and prepare for this exam. I'm sure your advice will be a lot of help to those students.

    Susan Hirst |