Physicians with disabilities underrepresented in medical schools, practices

Bringing more physicians with disabilities into the workforce could improve care for a vulnerable patient population, according to an article in Slate.

The relative lack of physicians with disabilities often creates a challenging atmosphere for patients with disabilities.

Although nearly 20% of the population of the United States has a disability, estimates put participation in medical school classes by people with a disability at 0.3% to 2.7%, according to an article in Slate. While studies have shown cultural competency to improve care for diverse patient populations, aspiring medical school students with disabilities face an additional barrier in the form of physical requirements mandated by the schools. The few practicing physicians with disabilities face an uphill battle from patients and colleagues, as well, as many people think they won't be able to provide the same level of care as able-bodied doctors.

But the future is promising. Technology has made it easier and less expensive to accommodate medical students. For example, the article noted, deaf students can look at a screen of transcribed dialogue to follow what is happening in the operating room. In addition, court rulings show progressively less leniency to medical schools that reject students based upon an inability to meet technical standards without accommodations, according to the article.

A 2016 paper published in the AMA Journal of Ethics suggests concerns that physicians with disabilities would be unable to execute their duties are overblown: “Despite concerns about patient safety, not a single legal case known to the authors has been filed in which patient harm resulted from an accommodation provided to [a student with sensory and physical disabilities],” the paper said. 

The paper’s authors also suggest that physicians with disabilities can help healthcare providers to make proper accommodations for patients with disabilities, which is an ongoing concern, particularly for deaf patients. Moreover, as Slate points out, patients with disabilities tend to be a vulnerable population in the United States as they often face difficulties gaining proper access to care.

Bliss Temple, M.D., who is herself a paraplegic, adds that doctors who demonstrate an ability to practice despite their disabilities can play a role in helping patients understand how to cope with the physical issues that tend to accrue with age. “Doctors are healers, but they’re also arbiters of what’s normal,” she says.