Studying your own illness – A Quirk of Medical Education

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Picture this. You’re a medical student sitting in a lecture theatre, learning about a condition in which you are already an expert; not because you have seen a patient with the condition before, but because you have lived the real experience yourself. As Henry Marsh explores in “Do No Harm”, medical students often develop a false understanding that that disease happens only to patients, seeing doctors as superhuman humans who are immune to disease and disability. This perpetuates the concept of a healthy, neurotypical, non-disabled doctors, whereas the reality is vastly different.

We do not know the true proportion of doctors that are affected by disability. This is due to hesitancy about disclosing such information, from a fear of being treated unfavourably or lack of support from the workplace. In a 2020 BMA survey reported in ‘Disability in the medical profession’, only 36% of disabled doctors and medical students felt comfortable disclosing their disability to their peers.1

So, where best to tackle this issue than from the ground up? Only 7% of medical students report that there are visible disability role models where they work.1 This perhaps highlights the importance of targeting the early years of education, given the massive impact of positive role models early on in one’s career. As a student who is on the spectrum (along with the host of problems it brings), I was hesitant to disclose my condition to my peers. I thought I would be seen as weak, or not good enough to cope the demands of the medical profession, which are remnants of the antiquated style of ‘suck it up and get on with it’ approach to medicine. However, after seeing a member of staff being open about their own conditions, this encouraged me to stand up and shout from the roof tops about who I am. If we can encourage more doctors with disability to step up and become visible, it will help to normalise medical students identifying as disabled early on in their career.

What can be done to improve things from a Medical Education perspective? One method to improve awareness around disability and fluctuating conditions could come from enabling doctors and students who identify as disabled to come forward and talk about their experiences. In medical education, we often encourage patients to share their stories of living with chronic conditions to educate medical students. Why not utilise the people who are sat right there in the lecture halls? Using peers to educate students about their experiences makes disability more personal and could make it easier for medics to become less distant from this world.

Using positive role models within the NHS to talk openly about their experiences may also improve stigma around disability. It normalises not being “perfectly healthy” and hopefully, it will become the norm to not see doctors as invincible robots but more like humans we can all relate to. If we make it the norm to declare from the beginning of a career, then we will see a positive shift towards a culture of openness and acceptance as the next generation of doctors progress through the NHS.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of looking after your own mental health and staff within the NHS are slowly starting to be more open. Dr Alex, a GP trainee and ex-Love Island contestant, has emerged as an unexpected, prominent voice on mental health advocacy, recently being appointed by the government as an Ambassador for Mental Health. This would be a perfect time to utilise influencers such as Dr Alex with their expanding reach on social media to encourage open conversation on mental health and disability. So how about #DisabledDoc being our next big thing? Let’s make talking about disability as normal as your morning cup of coffee.

Abbie Tutt
@AbbieTutt

Bio: Abbie is a Third Year Medical Student at the University of Warwick who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 18. Abbie is on the Communications team at JASME (Junior Association for the Study of Medical Education).

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