Doctors with disabilities push for culture change in medicine

August 6, 2018

Doctors with disabilities push for culture change in medicine

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Lisa Iezzoni was in medical school at Harvard in the early 1980s when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She started experiencing some of the symptoms, including fatigue, but she wasn't letting that get in the way of her goal. Then came the moment she scrubbed in on a surgery and the surgeon told her what he thought of her chances in the field.

"He opined that I had no right to go into medicine because I lacked the most important quality in medicine," Iezzoni recalls "And that was 24/7 availability."

Iezzoni didn't end up becoming a doctor. This was before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, and she says she just didn't have the support.

In the decades since, court rulings and amendments have clarified rights and protections. But culture change has been slow to take hold in the profession.

Doctors are often portrayed as pinnacles of health, superhumans responding to emergencies around the clock, performing miracles of all kinds. They're seen as the fixers, not the ones ever in need of accommodations or care.

"This profession historically has viewed themselves as able-bodied in the extreme," Iezzoni says.

Now, a growing movement of current and aspiring doctors with disabilities is starting to challenge that narrative, saying it is a disservice both to the medical profession and to patients.

It's important to acknowledge and accommodate medical professionals with disabilities, says Lisa Meeks, a psychologist and researcher at Michigan Medicine specializing in disabilities in medicine and medical education. "It deserves attention and its own problem-solving," she says.

Meeks co-founded the Coalition for Disability Access in Health Science and Medical Education, a group focused on improving access to medical education for students with disabilities.

She also co-authored a report released this year on disabilities and medicine, which found that many doctors still conceal their disabilities out of fear of stigma or bias.

Earlier this year, Meeks had a thought: If doctors with disabilities saw more people like themselves, would they talk more openly about the challenges and opportunities? She started a social media campaign with the hashtag #DocsWithDisabilities.

The goal was to find 20 doctors willing to share their stories online. She has been flooded with interest from doctors with disabilities.

"There's no end in sight," Meeks says.

And now #NursesWithDisabilities have joined in, too.

"I felt this was a really unique opportunity to introduce all of these docs with disabilities to the medical field," she says. "To let people know there are not unique one or two physicians with disabilities, but that there are a number of physicians with disabilities throughout the United States."

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