The University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine’s MDisability Summer Internship Program, which kicked off in June, is a unique academic program designed for upperclass level college or graduate/professional students who want to learn how to be part of a health care landscape that provides access and equity to people with disabilities.
This is critical, considering that one in four people in the United States lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That translates to 61 million people who are either born with a disability, acquire it at some point in their lives, or experience disability in advanced age.
This year’s participants include Hiwot Abate, a fourth-year medical student at Tulane University and founder of the Tulane Medical Students with Disability and Chronic Illness; Grayson Buning, a rising senior at the University of Michigan who is studying Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience as he follows a pre-med track; and Lydia Smeltz, an incoming medical student at Penn State College of Medicine and graduate of Duke University.
The internship program, which runs until August 6, provides interns the opportunity to develop basic research skills; gain exposure to disability-related health policy; engage in community and education based disability projects; and explore best practices for the education of providers with a disability and the care of patients with disabilities.
“There are so few training pipeline programs around disability health, placing many trainees, including those with a disability, at a great disadvantage to advance in their careers,” said Michael McKee, M.D., MPH, director of the MDisability Program and associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine. “The MDisability summer internship offers a rare opportunity to do hands-on disability health work and receive mentorship from various disability health faculty members."
Due to the lingering COVID-19 situation, this year’s internship is virtual, but provides interns assignments to various disability health projects that allow them to work with department faculty mentors. These projects may lead to publications or poster presentations.
Interns also attend several disability-related talks, meetings, and research and medical profession-focused student programs.
Students also have the opportunity to work with clinicians, such as Dr. McKee, at the Deaf Health Clinic in Dexter.
Dawn Michael, manager of the MDisability Program, said that she received 32 qualifying applications from interested students this year, up from about 15 applicants last year and three applicants the first year the program was established in 2019.
To her knowledge, the MDisability Program is a one-of-a-kind internship program in the United States. And it puts budding medical doctors and disability health researchers in touch with nationally-recognized leaders in the field of disability health research and care, such as Dr. McKee, who has hearing loss.
“This internship supports MDisability’s mission by providing opportunities to students to increase the number of disability health researchers, clinicians, educators and policy makers to improve access and quality of care for patients with disabilities,” she said.
Dawn Michael added that those who administer the internship program hope participants take away knowledge, awareness and inspiration to continue to learn, pursue and contribute to the work of closing the gap in healthcare disparities for people with disabilities.
“We hope they become an ally as a health care provider,” she said. “In the future, we hope the program will create an alumni network of future disability health researchers, clinicians, educators and policy makers who will improve access and quality of care for people with disabilities,” she said.
Gauging the reaction of past alumni members of the internship program, it is well on its way to meeting its goals.
“The MDisability Summer Internship Program helped me establish a foundation to identify and address disability-related issues throughout my career,” said former intern Michael Casden, who will be entering U-M’s Medical School in August. “I plan to build upon this experience and continue to advocate for people with disabilities as a medical student and ultimately as a physician.”
Dawn Michael strongly encourages students with a disability to apply for participation in a future MDisability internship program. Former intern Samuel Grewe, who experienced the loss of his right leg after a cancer diagnosis, took part in the 2020 summer internship program.
Sam became involved with adaptive sports after his amputation. Adaptive sports is just one component of the overall MDisability Program, which focuses not only on the education of medical students and clinicians already practicing medicine, but also addressing healthcare disparities and advancing disability research.
“As someone with a disability, I’ve experienced firsthand many of the challenges and barriers that my colleagues and I set out to tackle through this internship,” said Sam. “Having the opportunity to work with these issues and implement real, tangible changes proved to be incredibly rewarding. The lessons I’ve learned, both academically and emotionally, will undoubtedly help inform my future decisions as I pursue a career in medicine.”
For more information about applying to the MDisability Summer internship program, please email MDisability Program Coordinator Dawn Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.