Recognising the benefits that disabled doctors bring to a team
This anonymised account reflects the views of an individual, and not the General Medical Council.
A trainee doctor with a serious congenital bone deformity highlights the valuable contribution every individual doctor brings to medicine, and how a flexible working pattern helped them finish the Foundation Programme.
I received an unexpected and abrupt diagnosis with a serious congenital bone deformity just before my final exams in medical school and was informed that I could not work as a doctor. I want other people who are faced with disability to know that a productive career in health and healthcare is still possible and worth persisting with, and that as a disabled person you can bring something unique and very important to medical practice.
I experienced impairing symptoms from midway through my time in medical school but was not diagnosed (gaining a 'disabled' label) until just before my final exams. I know that part of the reason for this was the culture in medicine (including medical students) of 'getting on with it' and ignoring physical discomfort and tiredness.
One of the insights I've gained as a disabled person is that doctors are generally expected to be 'superhuman'. As a disabled person, you learn to pace yourself, gain adequate rest and plan your day efficiently. You have to, in order to function. But all doctors need these skills and simply hoping that the average young, fit, twenty-something can simply endure the demands of being a doctor in training is not good for anyone, abled or disabled. Each doctor should be able to understand their own needs, strengths and weaknesses and approach their work accordingly, with due consideration of self-care. Aching feet, sore backs, tired eyes and general exhaustion can be relieved, not ignored.
Supporting disabled doctors is ultimately about supporting all doctors to work safely and within their personal capacity. Each person has something to offer, and in a team, can contribute to excellent patient care. For example, because I was less able to walk the wards and carry out cannulations, I took responsibility for the majority of discharge summary management, drug chart management, lab result signing, writing death certificates, liaising with Coroner's office and general office tasks. This rapidly upskilled me in undertaking these tasks effectively and freed other colleagues to gain more complex clinical experience without an administrative burden. On the other hand, I think my experiences as a patient as well as a doctor improved my skills in the doctor-patient relationship, such as outpatient clinics and history taking.
My successful completion of the Foundation Programme despite my physical impairments was largely thanks to an excellent and supportive employing trust. They assisted me by letting me become a less than full-time (LTFT) trainee and supernumerary after Foundation Year 1, adjusting my rotations and timetable to better suit my needs and providing ongoing pastoral support.
I know that one reason I felt I could continue in my job despite my challenges was that a doctor in the cohort ahead of me was LTFT and supernumerary for a different chronic condition, and therefore I had a model for a path I could take. I know that my case (with my permission) has been used as an example in that particular trust to encourage other doctors to become LTFT, assuring them that this is possible. I think awareness of these examples and modelled behaviours is key to better support for medical students and doctors facing disability. It can be done.