Medical education must take broader view of disabilities



“All physicians, regardless of specialty, will work with patients with disabilities,” Corrie Harris, MD, of the University of Louisville (Ky.), said in a plenary session presentation at the 2021 virtual Pediatric Hospital Medicine conference.

Disabilities vary in their visibility, from cognitive and sensory impairments that are not immediately obvious to an obvious physical disability, she said.

One in four adults and one in six children in the United States has a disability, said Dr. Harris. The prevalence of disability increases with age, but occurs across the lifespan, and will likely increase in the future with greater improvements in health care overall.

Dr. Harris reviewed the current conceptual model that forms the basis for the World Health Organization definition of functioning disability. This “functional model” defines disability as caused by interactions between health conditions and the environment, and the response is to “prioritize function to meet patient goals,” Dr. Harris said at the meeting, sponsored by the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association.

This model is based on collaboration between health care providers and their patients with disabilities, and training is important to help providers make this collaboration successful, said Dr. Harris. Without training, physicians may be ineffective in communicating with patients with disabilities by not speaking directly to the patient, not speaking in a way the patient can understand clearly, and not providing accessible patient education materials. Physicians also tend to minimize the extent of the patient’s expertise in their own condition based on their lived experiences, and tend to underestimate the abilities of patients with disabilities.

However, direct experience with disabled patients and an understanding of the health disparities they endure can help physicians look at these patients “through a more intersectional lens,” that also takes into account social determinants of health, Dr. Harris said. “I have found that people with disabilities are the best teachers about disability, because they have expertise that comes from their lived experience.”

Patients are the best teachers

Several initiatives are helping physicians to bridge this gap in understanding and reduce disparities in care. One such program is FRAME: Faces Redefining the Art of Medical Education. FRAME is a web-based film library designed to present medical information to health care providers in training, clinicians, families, and communities in a dignified and humanizing way. FRAME was developed in part by fashion photographer Rick Guidotti, who was inspired after meeting a young woman with albinism to create Positive Exposure, an ongoing project featuring children and adolescents with various disabilities.

FRAME films are “short films presenting all the basic hallmark characteristics of a certain genetic condition, but presented by somebody living with that condition,” said Mr. Guidotti in his presentation during the session.

The National Curriculum Initiative in Developmental Medicine (NCIDM) is designed to incorporate care for individuals with disabilities into medical education. NCIDM is a project created by the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry (AADMD).

“The need for this program is that there is no U.S. requirement for medical schools to teach about intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Priya Chandan, MD, also of the University of Louisville, said in her presentation during the session. “Approximately 81% of graduating medical students have no training in caring for adults with disabilities,” said Dr. Chandan, who serves as director of the NCIDM.

The current NCIDM was created as a 5-year partnership between the AADMD and Special Olympics, supported in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Chandan said. The purpose was to provide training to medical students in the field of developmental medicine, meaning the care of individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDD) across the lifespan. The AADMD has expanded to 26 medical schools in the United States and will reach approximately 4,000 medical students by the conclusion of the current initiative.

One challenge in medical education is getting past the idea that people living with disabilities need to be fixed, said Dr. Chandan. The NCIDM approach reflects Mr. Guidotti’s approach in both the FRAME initiatives and his Positive Exposure foundation, with a focus on treating people as people, and letting individuals with disabilities represent themselves.

Dr. Chandan described the NCIDM curriculum as allowing for flexible teaching methodologies and materials, as long as they meet the NCIDM-created learning goals and objectives. The curriculum also includes standardized evaluations. Each NCIDM program in a participating medical school includes a faculty champion, and the curriculum supports meeting people with IDD not only inside medical settings, but also outside in the community.

NCIDM embraces the idea of community-engaged scholarship, which Dr. Chandan defined as “a form of scholarship that directly benefits the community and is consistent with university and unit missions.” This method combined teaching and conducting research while providing a service to the community.

The next steps for the current NCIDM initiative are to complete collection of data and course evaluations from participating schools by early 2022, followed by continued dissemination and collaboration through AADMD.

Overall, the content of the curriculum explores how and where IDD fits into clinical care, Dr. Chandan said, who also emphasized the implications of communication. “How we think affects how we communicate,” she added. Be mindful of the language used to talk to and about patients with disabilities, both to colleagues and to learners.

When talking to the patient, find something in common, beyond the diagnosis, said Dr. Chandan. Remember that some disabilities are visible and some are not. “Treat people with respect, because you won’t know what their functional level is just by looking,” she concluded.

The presenters had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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