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Doctors with Disabilities: Essential Resources

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Disabled physicians overcome many challenges

There is no shortcut to becoming a physician. And if that’s not daunting enough, consider the additional hurdles that disabled doctors face, both in training and in practice. Sadly, history has not been kind to aspiring doctors with disabilities.

Lisa Iezzoni was told as a medical school student in the early 1980s that she had “no right” to go into medicine due to her disability, multiple sclerosis. Today, Lisa is a professor of medicine at Harvard who uses a wheelchair.

In honor of Disability Insurance Awareness Month, LeverageRx is highlighting resources, legal and technological advancements, and other accommodations that are available to doctors with disabilities.

How Many Doctors Have Disabilities?

A report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, Accessibility, Inclusion, and Action in Medical Education says the number of medical students with physical disabilities has historically ranged between 0.15% and 0.5%. That said, the report cited a study that found 2.7% of medical students self-reported a disability to their institutions. This remains low compared with the percentage of people with disabilities in overall undergraduate (11.1%) and graduate (7.6%) education programs. Of medical students with disabilities:

  • 33.7% had ADHD
  • 21.5% had a learning disability
  • 20.0% had a psychological disability
  • 13.1% had a chronic health disability
  • 3.0% were visually impaired
  • 2.5% had difficulties with mobility
  • 2.2% were deaf or hard of hearing
  • 3.9% had other functional impairments

And while more than 20% of Americans have a disability, only 2% of practicing physicians do. Most physicians with disabilities become afflicted after completing their training. The acceptance of and support for medical students and doctors with disabilities continues to grow. In fact, there is an ongoing effort to increase the number of physicians with disabilities as a means of improving care for patients with disabilities.

A primary care doctor who shares my exact diagnosis will inarguably always have a better understanding of my life experience than any doctor without disabilities ever could

  • Ace Ratcliff

Ace Ratcliff is a well-known disability advocate. She herself lives with a disability and her work, among many others, has not gone unnoticed.

Disability is not a tragedy, and its inclusion in the medical workforce is an indisputable necessity for safe, ethical and diverse 21st-century medicine.

Is the Law Accommodating for Disabled Doctors?

The challenge for aspiring doctors living with disabilities often begins in medical school. For example, students with disabilities have reported issues such as:

  • Schools not having automatic doors
  • Schools not making reasonable accommodations for taking tests

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act was passed as a remedy for this and other similar issues. The law dictates that people with disabilities can not be “excluded, denied services, segregated or otherwise treated differently,” in higher education or employment. However, medical education and employment saw little change in the immediate years the law took place. This was primarily due to a clause that provided exemptions in the event that accommodations for disability either “fundamentally altered” education or created “an undue burden.”

Lisa Iezzoni says that medical school technical standards have changed little in the last 40 years. She believes this has effectively prevented qualified students with disability from becoming physicians. Furthermore, physicians who become disabled later in life are often reluctant to report their conditions out of concern for how state licensure boards will react. However, this fear has diminished in recent years as law has caught up with the reality that physicians with disabilities are valuable in the field of medicine.

For example, in 2013, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Creighton University to fund accommodations for a deaf medical student. A year later, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Palmer College of Chiropractic had to make similar accommodations for a blind student to read X-rays.

The Perception of Disabled Doctors

Another significant barrier for physicians with disabilities is perception. There has long been a belief that doctors must be perfect. They must be able to perform at the highest physical and mental capacity at any given time, day or night. However, there is now a growing sentiment that physicians with disabilities can be more empathetic to the needs of patients with disabilities. For example, physicians who need accommodations are much more likely to offer accommodations to their disabled patients. Secondly, disabled physicians are less likely to make assumptions about their patients with disabilities or carry stigmas towards people with disabilities.

As stated in the AAMC report:

When health care providers have life experience that more closely matches the experiences of their patients, patients tend to be more satisfied with their care and to adhere to medical advice… Medical students who identify as having a disability during training carry a disability identity that informs their clinical practice and leads to more culturally competent care.

Medicine is Accommodating Doctors with disabilities

Medical professionals, residents, and students should know they have options within the profession. Even if their disability prevents them from pursuing certain types of practice. For example, the Society of Pharmacists with Disabilities advises those who have a physical disability that they can (in most cases) work in retail pharmacy. Although any lack of mobility can make a hospital environment difficult, working in a corporate pharmaceutical company is another option. Other opportunities include:

  • Professional societies
  • Medical writing
  • Medical affairs

Similarly, some disabled nurses may find it easier to work a non-clinical job, such as:

  • Administration
  • Quality improvement
  • Patient safety
  • Clinical support
  • Chart reviews

No one expects a primary care doctor to perform the work of a cardiac surgeon. Medical students with disabilities should be and are capable of specializing in areas that best suit their needs and talents. So long as society is willing to accept that the potential for doctors with disabilities is limited only by the assumption of automatic inability, students with disabilities have every right to attend medical school and flourish as doctors.

If you leave medicine temporarily due to your disability, consider this:

  • You may need to renew your medical license
  • If you have left medicine due to a disability, you might want to return to practice after your situation changes
  • You may be required to retrain for your specialty. There are a number of re-training programs out there:
    • Cedars-Sinai Reentry
    • Physician Retraining and Reentry
    • Oregon Medical Board Reentry
    • Drexel University Re-entry Program
    • University of Florida Physician Remediation
    • Texas A & M Mini-Residency Program

Technology and Disabled Doctors

As you may expect, technology has disrupted the status quo to better accommodate those practicing with disabilities. For example, physicians and residents with partial hearing loss can use amplified stethoscopes. Physicians with vision impairment can use devices that represent flat images with vibrating pins to read histories and electrocardiograms. Doctors on surgery and anesthesiology rotations can have their deaf students follow along using a screen of transcribed dialogue.

Resources for Disabled Doctors

Organizations that support physicians and medical students with disabilities include:

  • Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science and Medical Education. This collaboration among peer institutions aims to improve the student experience with disability accommodations in graduate health science and medical education programs.
  • ExceptionalNurse.com. This resource network is committed to inclusion of more people with disabilities in the nursing profession.
  • Society of Healthcare Professionals with Disabilities. This organization provides resources and support for disabled physicians, physician assistants, and students. Its mission is to foster a supportive community and to provide resources and tools for disabled health care professionals and students. The society includes subgroups for physicians, nurses, and pharmacists.
  • American Dental Association’s Center for Professional Success. The ADA offers support for dentists with disabilities.
  • Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss. AMPHL provides information, promotes advocacy and mentorship, and creates a network for those with hearing loss who are interested in or are working in health care.
  • National Organization of Nurses With Disabilities. NOND represents nurses, students and other health care professionals who have disabilities and chronic health conditions. It works to promote equity for people with disabilities in the nursing profession through education and advocacy.

Summary

As an independent physician disability insurance broker, our team is constantly focused on the ins and outs of your coverage. Making sure you have the best available plan if tragedy strikes. Here, we switched gears to highlight the ongoing advancements in how society perceives and accommodates physicians with disabilities. The reality for those who practice medicine once their disability benefits kick in. From professional, legal, and technological advancements to the increasingly positive perception of physicians with disabilities, this long-overlooked issue is finally trending in the right direction.