More than 100 New Zealand doctors must resit the most important exam of their careers after a computer glitch during the six-hour online test.
The Written Divisional Basic Training exam is set by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and is widely considered the most stressful test doctors ever take. The RACP said 127 New Zealand doctors and hundreds of Australian doctors sat the test on February 19.
A typical candidate will have studied for 18 months on top of full-time medical work in preparation for the brutal six-hour exam, according to Dr Deborah Powell, national secretary of the NZ Resident Doctors' Association.
The news that their exam results were void and they had to resit had left Kiwi doctors "absolutely shattered", she said.
"People are spontaneously bursting into tears - they're devastated. That was the immediate reaction; there's a bit of anger there now too."
This year the exam moved from being paper-based to an online test, run by US company Pearson Vue. The exam was set in two three-hour blocks on Monday, and doctors were able to take a break in the middle.
But during the second block, a technical fault locked many candidates out of their computers. Technicians scrambled to fix the problem but meanwhile candidates were stuck in exam rooms - some for hours.
Horror stories have emerged of the resulting stress. Students were not allowed out for food, water or toilet breaks. One Australian candidate was reportedly refused leave to pump breast milk for her baby, meaning he had to drink formula for the first time in his life.
Other candidates had already finished the exam and left early when they were informed the test had been cancelled and their results were void.
On Monday the RACP apologised for the botch-up and distress caused. All candidates must now resit a paper-based exam next Friday.
A video posted to YouTube by the RACP before the test had said there were "a number of different contingency plans" in case of a computer failure during the exam. That video has now been taken offline - but the RACP told the Herald the video had always been scheduled to come down after the exam.
The paper-based exam had been prepared in advance as part of the risk-management plan, the RACP said.
"Questions in the paper examination are as rigorous as the questions used for the computer based examination and they have been validated."
In Australia, doctors pay A$1800 to sit the exam, on top of thousands in training fees. But in New Zealand, district health boards (DHB)s pay the $2093 fee for the exam. DHBs also give the doctors a two-week sabbatical leading up to the test, with locums covering the gap.
Other doctors are stepping in to fill shifts so their colleagues don't have to work leading up to the new exam, Powell said. "The DHBs are being excellent as well - there's definitely a collegial effort to get them through."
Some doctors had booked leave for after the exam ended, and must cancel flights and holiday bookings to resit.
The RACP did not say whether it would compensate DHBs or the doctors for the costs incurred, responding only that it would "be in discussion with District Health Boards and asking them to accommodate trainees in completing a new exam scheduled for 2 March 2018".
Powell said the NZRDA was focusing on supporting candidates through the resit, and would then turn its attention to what went wrong. Some candidates, including one who is heavily pregnant, are unable to resit next Friday and they would attend a resit on a separate date, she said.