A Plea for More Inclusion in Medical Schools

medical student with teaching doctor

Imagine if your child’s doctor understood first-hand, what it meant to cope with a disability because he or she had a disability too? Alas, a doctor with that particular expertise won’t be easy to find. Despite the fact that 20 percent of the general population has some sort of a disability, the likelihood of finding a doctor with a disability is far lower. “Students with sensory and physical disabilities are underrepresented in medical schools,” according to a 2016 paper published in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics.

The paper attributed the scarcity of medical students with disabilities in part, to admissions policies that focus on students’ limitations rather than their strengths. In addition, the report said that schools’ biases against students with disabilities were based on assumptions such as the “potential risks to patient safety posed by accommodations, accommodation costs, and ensuring performance standards such that graduates can pass licensure exams without accommodations.” All these assumptions were without merit said the paper’s authors.

In response to the shortage of medical students and doctors with disabilities, in March 2018, the Association of American Medical Colleges released “Accessibility, Inclusion, and Action in Medical Education: Lived Experiences of Learners and Physicians With Disabilities,” a publication “designed to increase awareness and understanding of the challenges and opportunities for individuals with disabilities at the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals.”

In a press release, the publication’s co-author, Lisa Meeks, Ph.D. said: “Learners need effective structures that sometimes are missing, such as clear policies around disabilities and knowledgeable disability service providers. But that is not enough. They also need a culture that lets them know they are welcome.” The publication —which is the first of its kind— presented “key considerations” for making medical schools and by extension, the medical field more inclusive. The considerations included:

• Hiring a dedicated employee with expertise in disabilities and accommodations who is knowledgeable about the requirements of medical settings
• Ordering an assessment of medical schools’ existing services for students with disabilities
• Having a clear and confidential policy for accommodations requests that is outlined on the institution’s website
• Encouraging students to access supports and take time off for medical and mental health appointments as needed

It may take time for medical schools and the medical field to adapt to inclusion guidelines such as the ones recommended by the AAMC’s publication. But we’re convinced that when the medical field embraces inclusion, we’ll all be better for it!