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Why Speed Matters When Preparing for the CPHQ Exam

How long does it take to adequately prepare for the CPHQ exam?

1 month? 2 months? 3 months? 6 months? Longer?

The most obvious answer is: “It depends.” While I cannot disagree with this fact, it has not been my answer to this frequently asked question in the last 2 years or so.

I now advise people to make their CPHQ exam preparation short and sweet. (By the way, the same advice also applies to other endeavors, such as hospital accreditation, quality improvement projects, policy writing, and for the same reasons.)

The Problem With “It Depends”

“It depends” is cliché: everyone, especially the novice, uses it.

If you are not familiar with the principles and concepts in healthcare quality, you’re going to take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam, compared with someone who has been in the game for three decades. True, but only to a partial extent.

If you have never worked in a US healthcare setting, you’re going to take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam, compared with someone who has worked in several US hospitals over the last two decades. True, but only to a partial extent.

If you have full-time job plus a husband and two kids at home, you’re going to take longer (on average) to prepare for the exam, compared with someone who has a part-time job and/or no family commitments outside working hours. I don’t know about this one; it may or may not be true.

If the above statements, highlighted in green, were absolutely true, how do you explain a person who has never set foot in the US, who has less than 12 months of work experience (in only one hospital), and who has to juggle multiple commitments, passing the CPHQ exam with a score that is above the 50th percentile? How do you explain the fact that not one CPHQ, but at least five in similar situations, passed the exam? All passed with great scores—nothing less than 103/125 (I should know—I was fortunate to contribute to their success).

Here’s the problem I have with the idea that the time needed to prepare for the CPHQ exam depends on various factors: it makes it sound as though all these factors—work commitments, family commitments, work experience, etc.—are beyond the control of the candidate. This is never the case; anyone who considers sitting the CPHQ exam will have some ability to address the factors that affect the duration of their exam preparation. They may need external assistance to overcome some barriers, but my experience with hundreds of different candidates (from all parts of the globe) tells me that CPHQ candidates are able to problem solve.

The most common issue that candidates complain about is a “lack of time” for study. For a few individuals, their schedules are really full and they struggle to find the time to study, answer sample questions, attend workshops, etc.

However, the majority of CPHQ candidates merely have to make the necessary adjustments in their schedules to dedicate some time to CPHQ exam preparation. Impossible? Certainly not. As the saying goes, “We never have enough time to do it right, but we always find time to do it over.”

Getting organized, discipline, and determination are essential ingredients of a successful strategy.

Make It Short and Sweet

The duration of exam preparation is the interval between the time a candidate makes the commitment to be certified as a CPHQ (which we recommend the person documents somewhere and tells an important person in their life, to promote accountability) to the time that he/she passes the CPHQ exam. This interval does not begin when the candidate starts “thinking about” sitting the exam. Exam preparation ends only if the outcome is a passing score on the actual CPHQ exam. There’s nothing sweeter than the taste of success.

But how “short” should exam preparation be for it to be “short and sweet”?

I encourage people to consider an exam preparation period that is less than 100 days, or about 14 weeks. This is of course an arbitrary figure. You could easily choose 120 days or 90 days instead, which will still be better than “as soon as possible” or “sometime later in the year.” Planning requires concrete numbers; you are going to be far more successful in completing your exam preparation in a timely manner (and therefore be certified) if you give yourself a definite timeframe.

There is always a risk that you give yourself too little time to do everything you need to do to be adequately prepared for the exam. Setting yourself an unrealistically short timeframe will be counterproductive because you may not pass the exam and, as a consequence, will have to wait a further 90 days before your next attempt.

Preparing for the CPHQ exam is similar to going to war. Victory (passing the exam) is most likely with proper strategy and meticulous execution.

Preparing for the CPHQ exam is similar to going to war. Victory (passing the exam) is most likely with proper strategy and meticulous execution.

If you view your preparation for the CPHQ exam as if you were getting ready for war (as some do), you may appreciate Sun Tzu’s wisdom about the speed in which operations should be conducted in his famous military treatise The Art of War:

While speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish – if only because it means impoverishment to the nation.

In other words, we may err by attempting the CPHQ exam before being fully prepared, but it would be a bigger mistake to take too long before sitting the exam because, if nothing else, it would unnecessarily involve more resources (time, effort, money).

Balancing adequate time for exam preparation and brevity of the preparation period is critical; 90–99 days seem to be about right for most people.

Why Speed Matters

The sooner you get certified, the sooner you stop toiling for the exam and the sooner you can reap the benefits of being a CPHQ. This seems like common sense but if you had the chance to see the number of people who drag their feet over the exam, you’d have second thoughts.

Extending the exam preparation period beyond about 100 days carries at least the following risks:

  1. Forgetting what you’ve learnt or read. Most adult learners find it hard to remember things that they have studied or read, especially if the facts are unfamiliar to them and/or not part of their daily activities. You don’t need me to tell you that memory, when left untested or neglected, diminishes with time. The longer you prolong the exam preparation period, the greater the likelihood of you failing to recall what you’ve studied, read, or learnt.
  2. Losing motivation. This is a well-known phenomenon—the longer it takes to realize results in an endeavor, the greater the likelihood that motivation starts to wane. Quoting Sun Tzu in The Art of War again, “Victory is the main object of war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed.” (In other words, passing the CPHQ exam is the main objective of exam preparation. If this is long delayed, the effectiveness of whatever resources you employed will be diminished and your morale will be shot. I have witnessed this happening to quite a number of candidates, who, for whatever reason, thought it was prudent to take as much time as possible to “study” for the exam.)
  3. Wasting resources. As mentioned, unnecessary delays in sitting the exam will inevitably diminish any positive effect of resources, e.g. attendance at a workshop, reading a book, attempting sample questions. In addition, a prolonged preparation period will likely entail the use of more resources, which may or may not be helpful. This behavior is akin to trips to the supermarket: the longer you stay in a supermarket, the more you buy, whether or not those things are really necessary.
  4. Exam failure. The combined effect of 13 is that you are less likely to pass the CPHQ exam. In our experience, persons who spend less than 100 days on CPHQ exam preparation, and who make a decent effort during that period, will have an approximate 85% chance of passing the exam. This success rate falls to about 50% for those who spend between 100 and 180 days on preparing for the exam. As expected, the pass rate among those who take longer than 180 days is even lower, somewhere in the order of 30%.

Speed Alone Is Insufficient

While we strongly believe that CPHQ candidates should complete their exam preparation in less than 100 days, this view assumes that persons are committed to making the necessary changes to bring about exam success. We do not recommend that candidates try to wing the exam: this has a remarkably low success rate and is accompanied by other negative consequences that most test takers do not consider.

Given a defined time period (99 days or something else), the candidate should sit down to plan what he/she is going to do during that period, using project management principles and techniques. In particular, creating a work breakdown structure (WBS) can be extremely rewarding.

It goes without saying that the strategies and tactics you employ during the exam preparation period (which are beyond the scope of this article) are another major determinant of exam success; a speedy period alone is insufficient.

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