Recent research from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that there are far more people making it through medical school with disabilities than we imagined. Indeed, the number of students with disabilities of various sorts going through medical school may be as much as nine times what we believed previously.
Researchers polled administrators at 89 allopathic medical schools that have a federal mandate to provide assistance to students with disabilities. Previous surveys have found between 0.3 percent and 0.6 percent of medical school students presented to administrators as disabled. But this survey found that out of over 1,500 students, as many as 2.7 percent of them were receiving support or accommodation of some kind from their medical schools due to disability.
A Broad Definiton of Disability
According to the administrators surveyed, the most common disability manifested among medical students was attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This disorder was followed by learning disabilities (21.5 percent) and psychological disabilities (20 percent.)
About 3 percent of disabled students were hearing impaired, and 4 percent had visual impairments. 3 percent of them reported mobility disabilities, and about 13 percent reported another ‘chronic health issue.’ Another 4 percent reported some other ‘functional impairment,’ according to the data collected from school administrators.
“The preponderance of students with ADHD, learning disabilities and psychological disabilities suggests that these disability subtypes should be included in future research efforts, such as studies assessing the performance of appropriately accommodated students,” wrote the authors, Lisa M. Meeks, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, and Kurt R. Herzer, PhD, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore.
98 percent of those identified as disabled received accommodations from the school, including extra time for testing or private testing environments. However, only a minority of schools – 40 percent – extended these accommodations to the clinical setting.
What does this mean for existing doctors? Those in private practice may have to think about ways to provide accommodations for employee physicians in the future. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires private employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees, and physicians are no exception.
Furthermore, these reasonable accommodations for employees go much further than ensuring the office is wheelchair friendly – which isn’t much of a problem in most modern medical office buildings, anyway. The overall trend is that enforcement of the ADA, and the definition of disabilities that qualify for its protections, is getting broader It also means you may have to provide reasonable accommodations to all manner of disabilities, including potentially mental illnesses and even personality disorders.
At the practice level, you may have to make accommodations that include more flexible scheduling, modified break schedules, access to counseling and employee assistance programs, provide stress management options.
The requirement to accommodate those with disabilities is not open-ended: Employees and applicants must be able to do the job, and the accommodations made on their behalf must be reasonable. You aren’t obligated to put patients at risk to accommodate employee physicians or other staff with disabilities. But the bar is being set higher and higher, and we can expect more medical school graduates with various kinds of disabilities – both physical and mental – in the years to come.
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