September 18, 2017

Learners and physicians with disabilities are at home at Michigan: A statement on disability inclusion in medical education

Written by Lisa Meeks, Ph.D., clinical lecturer, with Philip Zazove, M.D., chair, and contributions from across the University of Michigan Medical School

Lisa Meeks, Philip Zazove, Feranmi Okanlami, Michael McKee family medicine faculty
Family medicine faculty author a September 2017 statement on disability inclusion in medical education, with additional contributions from the University of Michigan Medical School and the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion. From left to right: Lisa Meeks, Ph.D., Philip Zazove, M.D., Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., M.S., Michael McKee, M.D., M.P.H. 


A recent airing of 20/20 highlighted the experiences of physicians in an episode titled, “The Good Doctors: Brilliance and Bravery.” Among the doctors covered were Christopher McCulloh, M.D., a surgical resident with a spinal cord injury who utilizes a stand- up wheelchair to navigate his environment and Tyler Sexton, M.D., a pediatrician with cerebral palsy who steadies his gait using his service animal. In its portrayal of doctors with disabilities, 20/20 also mentions Michigan’s own Philip Zazove, M.D.,  the George A. Dean, M.D. Chair of Family Medicine, a deaf family physician. These doctors represent a much-needed addition to the profession of medicine - doctors with disabilities. 

“I am pleased to see physicians like Dr. Zazove highlighted, not only for overcoming disability, but for achieving excellence in education, research and clinical care. At Michigan Medicine, we are committed to fostering an environment of inclusivity for our learners, faculty and staff, and patients. These groups learn so much from each other, including how to care for individuals with disabilities, and how individuals with disabilities — learners, caregivers and patients — working together strengthen our tripartite mission."  --Carol Bradford, M.D., M.S., the Executive Vice Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Credibility through empathy

There are an increasing number of physicians with disabilities, and they are more likely to care for patients with disabilities and educate their fellow learners and faculty about caring for people with disabilities. Due to their personal life experiences, physicians with disabilities are able to empathize and understand the needs of patients with disabilities better than many physicians without disabilities can. As noted by Dr. Sexton in the 20/20 piece, “My disability gives me credibility.” 

Research on disability and equity from the Department of Family Medicine 

The University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine is leading efforts to ensure that qualified students with disabilities who want to become physicians do not experience barriers simply because they have a disability. From highlighting the need for thoughtful admissions policies and progressive technical standards to identifying the numbers of students with disabilities, to capturing their lived experiences, researchers in the Department of Family Medicine are working to ensure that medical educators understand-- and are prepared to address--the nuanced needs of these learners.

Our robust research agenda includes: appropriate admission of qualified learners with disabilities, the performance of learners with disabilities, efficacy and appropriateness of interventions and accommodations, and the impact learners with disabilities have on peer and patient perceptions of disability and patient health. Moreover, having learners and physicians with disabilities supports diversity efforts and has strong potential to reduce health disparities for individuals with disabilities.

Role models and system change

Physicians with disabilities also serve as role models and advocates for patients with disabilities. Michigan’s newest incoming family medicine faculty member Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., M.S., knows first-hand what it means to be a person with a disability and uses this knowledge to inform his work with patients. Improving access for physicians and patients with disabilities requires an institutional commitment to the work. Dr. Okanlami, as part of his appointment, will work directly with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI) at Michigan Medicine. The Michigan Medicine Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI) works to foster and promote an environment of respect that honors the wellbeing, individuality and dignity of all who work, learn and heal at the academic medical center. Through the recently-formed Michigan Medicine Council on Disability, OHEI actively addresses issues within the medical community by identifying health care disparities and facilitating pertinent conversations about best practices for improving the lives of faculty, students, staff and patients who are affected by various disabilities.  

“We know that there continues to be significant health inequities for individuals with disabilities, that is why we created the Michigan Medicine Council on Disability – to increase awareness and promote a system in which every program and department works together to adequately support the needs of our community members with disabilities.” --David J. Brown, M.D., Associate Vice President and Associate Dean for Health Equity and Inclusion, and Associate Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery with Michigan Medicine.

 Together, we believe that full inclusion is possible when best practices for supporting learners with disabilities are followed. Only then can we recruit, retain, and create environments where learners with disabilities can thrive, contribute, and advance to the physician workforce.  We at Michigan are committed to this.