Purpose To identify approaches to operationalizing the development of competence in Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) milestones. Method The authors reviewed all 25 "Milestone Project" documents available on the ACGME Web site on September 11, 2013, using an iterative process to identify approaches to operationalizing the development of competence in the milestones associated with each of 601 subcompetencies. Results Fifteen approaches were identified. Ten focused on attributes and activities of the learner, such as their ability to perform different, increasingly difficult tasks (304/601; 51%), perform a task better and faster (171/601; 45%), or perform a task more consistently (123/601; 20%). Two approaches focused on context, inferring competence from performing a task in increasingly difficult situations (236/601; 29%) or an expanding scope of engagement (169/601; 28%). Two used socially defined indicators of competence such as progression from "learning" to "teaching," "leading," or "role modeling" (271/601; 45%). One approach focused on the supervisor's role, inferring competence from a decreasing need for supervision or assistance (151/601; 25%). Multiple approaches were often combined within a single set of milestones (mean 3.9, SD 1.6). Conclusions Initial ACGME milestones operationalize the development of competence in many ways. These findings offer insights into how physicians understand and assess the developmental progression of competence and an opportunity to consider how different approaches may affect the validity of milestone-based assessments. The results of this analysis can inform the work of educators developing or revising milestones, interpreting milestone data, or creating assessment tools to inform milestone-based performance measures.
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