Categories: Emergency Medicine

Emergency Medicine Board Review for the ABEM Exam

Emergency Medicine (EM) board review probably has you feeling a little overwhelmed right about now. There are many topics on the EM boards that require equal attention. Although the strategy required to study for the boards requires focus, EM is one of the most broad topics in medicine. Finding your footing may be difficult, but the first step to success is to recognize the diagnosis hidden in each case presentation. Resist the temptation to go out and buy every book, take every course or go to every review session out there for the boards. You’re only going to confuse and overwhelm yourself. The right method involves focusing your energies on those topics that show up the most frequently on the board exams. Without that kind of concentrated focus, you’ll get lost in the haze of all the information out there.

Centering your studies will be imperative. Unlike standard medical exams in the past, the board exams tend to test on overall knowledge of a topic, rather than information regurgitation. With that in mind, it is important to focus on the American Board of Emergency Medicine’s (ABEM) clear-cut set of topics that get tested year after year.

Specifically, you will want to concentrate on how to get to the right diagnosis when doing practice questions. Coming to the right diagnosis requires two elements: pattern recognition and knowing associations. If you can take a set of symptoms, physical signs, and/or laboratory values and recognize that they represent the pattern of a particular disease, you will be ahead of the game. Knowing associations should be a somewhat familiar skill for you at this point. This concept has to do with the classic recognition of medical “buzzwords.” These are those terms that are pathognomonic for a disease and give you the clues necessary to make the proper diagnosis.

The following list will give you the approximate percentage of emphasis for major topics found on the EM boards. Focus your studies on some of these topics and remember to exercise your pattern recognition and association skills throughout:

Traumatic Disorders at 11% of overall exam

Within the traumatic disorders, the subtopics include abdominal trauma, chest trauma, cutaneous injuries, facial fractures, genitourinary trauma, head trauma, injuries of the spine, lower extremity bone trauma, neck trauma, ophthalmologic trauma, otologic trauma, pediatric fractures, pelvic fractures, soft-tissue extremity injuries, vascular injuries, spinal cord and nervous system trauma, upper extremity bony trauma, trauma in pregnancy and multi-system trauma.

Cardiovascular Disorders at approximately 10% of overall exam
Signs, Symptoms and Presentations at approximately 9% of overall exam
Abdominal and Gastrointestinal Disorders at approximately 9% of overall exam
Thoracic-Respiratory Disorders at approximately 8% of overall exam
Systemic Infectious Disorders at approximately 5% of overall exam
Head, Ear, Eye, Nose and Throat Disorders at approximately 5% of overall exam
Nervous System Disorders at approximately 5% of overall exam
Toxicologic Disorders at approximately 4% of overall exam
Obstetrics and Gynecology at approximately 4% of overall exam
Endocrine, Metabolic and Nutritional Disorders at approximately 3% of overall exam
Environmental Disorders at approximately 3% of overall exam
Musculoskeletal Disorders (Non-Traumatic) at approximately 3% of overall exam
Psychobehavioral Disorders at approximately 3% of overall exam
Renal and Urogenital Disorders at approximately 3% of overall exam
Cutaneous Disorders at approximately 2% of overall exam
Hematologic Disorders at approximately 2% of overall exam
Immune System Disorders at approximately 2% of overall exam

Other topics of interest for you will include knowing all procedures and skills necessary to practice emergency medicine, including airway techniques, resuscitation, anesthesia and acute pain management, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, systems-based practice, and all normal lab values. Practicing case studies will be useful in getting accustomed to making quick, accurate diagnoses. And remember the old adage in medicine: “When you hear hooves, think of horses.” This should further guide you. Focus on the most common diseases and disorders in each topic, and leave the “zebras” for last! Good luck!

Contributed by Andrea Paul, you can find me on

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