Physicians with disabilities are underrepresented, says one wheelchair-bound doctor

Although nearly 20% of the population of the United States has a disability, that's true of less than 3% of medical school students.

Cheri A. Blauwet, M.D., has been in a wheelchair since she sustained a spinal cord injury in a farming accident as a young child. That didn’t stop her from becoming a doctor.

Unfortunately, bias, both overt and hidden, remains a barrier that keeps many prospective doctors with disabilities out of the medical field, writes Blauwet in an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Doctors with disabilities are underrepresented when it comes to the medical profession, and it’s time for that to change, says Blauwet, a practicing rehabilitation and sports medicine doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and a seven-time Paralympic medalist who serves on the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

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“People with disabilities often express fear or dissatisfaction with our healthcare system because they face poor access and discriminatory attitudes. This must change. Perhaps having more doctors with disabilities is one solution. As with any underrepresented group in medicine, professional diversity should reflect our population’s diversity. That simple change can bring awareness, empathy and a shared experience that ultimately makes all of us better,” writes Blauwet.

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%.

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.

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