Younger doctors call for more attention to patients with disabilities


As an undergraduate student at Northeastern University in Boston, Meghan Chin spent her summers working for a day program in Rhode Island. Her charges were adults with various forms of intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Meghan Chin, a medical student at Georgetown University

Meghan Chin

“I was very much a caretaker,” Ms. Chin, now 29, said. “It was everything from helping them get dressed in the morning to getting them to medical appointments.”

During one such visit Ms. Chin got a lesson about how health care looks from the viewpoint of someone with an IDD.

The patient was a woman in her 60s and she was having gastrointestinal issues; symptoms she could have articulated, if asked. “She was perfectly capable of telling a clinician where it hurt, how long she had experienced the problem, and what she had done or not done to alleviate it,” Ms. Chin said.

And of comprehending a response. But she was not given the opportunity.

“She would explain what was going on to the clinician,” Ms. Chin recalled. “And the clinician would turn to me and answer. It was this weird three-way conversation – as if she wasn’t even there in the room with us.”

Ms. Chin was incensed at the rude and disrespectful way the patient had been treated. But her charge didn’t seem upset or surprised. Just resigned. “Sadly, she had become used to this,” Ms. Chin said.

For the young aide, however, the experience was searing. “It didn’t seem right to me,” Ms. Chin said. “That’s why, when I went to medical school, I knew I wanted to do better for this population.”

Dr. Kim Bullock, associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University, Washington

Dr. Kim Bullock

Serendipity led her to Georgetown University, Washington, where she met Kim Bullock, MD, one of the country’s leading advocates for improved health care delivery to those with IDDs.

Dr. Bullock, an associate professor of family medicine, seeks to create better training and educational opportunities for medical students who will likely encounter patients with these disabilities in their practices.

When Dr. Bullock heard Ms. Chin’s story about the patient being ignored, she was not surprised.

“This is not an unusual or unique situation,” said Dr. Bullock, who is also director of Georgetown’s community health division and a faculty member of the university’s Center for Excellence for Developmental Disabilities. “In fact, it’s quite common and is part of what spurred my own interest in educating pre-med and medical students about effective communication techniques, particularly when addressing neurodiverse patients.”

More than 13% of Americans, or roughly 44 million people, have some form of disability, according to the National Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, a figure that does not include those who are institutionalized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 17% of children aged 3-17 years have a developmental disability.

Even so, many physicians feel ill-prepared to care for disabled patients. A survey of physicians, published in the journal Health Affairs, found that some lacked the resources and training to properly care for patients with disabilities, or that they struggled to coordinate care for such individuals. Some said they did not know which types of accessible equipment, like adjustable tables and chair scales, were needed or how to use them. And some said they actively try to avoid treating patients with disabilities.


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