Friday, March 4, 2016

Using a Lego to explain the difference between competencies and EPA's

People in medical education often have trouble figuring out the difference between competencies and EPA (entrustable professional activities). There is a pretty big philosophical difference. The competencies are definitions of observable behaviors and the EPA's are about observing a learner do a specific work task. Here is a recent article from Carraccio and others  that tries to ties the concepts together.

I was in a meeting yesterday where we were discussing the differences between EPA's and competencies. The group was trying to determine whether you are obligated to assess one first. We have 43 competencies in our new curriculum and 13 EPA's. The question that came up was if EPA 2 is going to be assessed in a student, and it is identified to require multiple competencies, do I need to measure the competencies first to allow me to get into an assessment for EPA's? The reverse of this question is if I am found to be entrustable to an acceptable level for graduation for EPA2, does this automatically allow me to be entrustable on all the related competencies.

While this discussion was going on, my mind wandered to Legos. I've been building Lego sets for years. My son and daughters now have large tubs of Legos in our house. It's really cool how you can make all sorts of wonderful things with the simple building blocks that are Legos. You can think of competencies as the individual building blocks. These are the behaviors necessary to build cool stuff. If you don't have the basic building blocks, you can't really make many cool sets (EPA's). The blocks come in lots of different shapes. Think of each shape as a competency. There are long flat short pieces and long flat long pieces. There are two by four bricks and two by eight bricks. There are all sorts of bricks. The bricks also come in different colors which can represent that a competency must be demonstrated in many different environments prior to saying for sure that it has been acheived. In other word, you may be good at applying medical knowledge in a pediatrics outpatient clinic, but not in an inpatient ICU with a critically ill patient. So, to check out on any given competency, the student may need a green two by four brick (applying medical knowledge in peds clinic), and a red two by four brick (applying medical knowledge in an ICU).

EPA's then are like the ability to build the sets. An EPA would be like taking all those Lego bricks and putting them together to make a car or a boat or a house. The act of making the car or boat or house means that you not only have the bricks needed to make the set, you can use them appropriately. So to enter an order in the ICU would be like making a house. The learner needs some two by four red bricks to make the house, but will also need roof pieces (say an infomatics competency) as well as other pieces. And they need to all be the right color to make a house in the ICU setting. Having a red two by four brick does not mean a student can build a house (they need specific skills to put it all together and other pieces), and building a house in the ICU does not mean you can build a house in the peds clinic (you need green pieces for that).

So, in other words, the EPA's and competencies are each dependent on each other. But both need to be assessed in parallel to assure that students Lego buckets are full of lots of cool and useful pieces, but also to assure that they can actually use the cool pieces to make stuff. Let me know if this helps you understand how EPA's and competencies work together, and what you think of this analogy in the comments below.

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