November 02, 2020

Teaching medical students how to care for people with disabilities

A recent paper found more than three-quarters of first-year medical students were more comfortable approaching patients with disabilities in clinical settings after completing an educational session

Medical student shaking hands with patients

A recent study highlights a curriculum at the University of Michigan Medical School that aims to teach medical students how to better care for, and interact with, patients with disabilities.

“Understanding how to approach individuals with disabilities in a clinical setting isn’t intuitive to everyone,” says Sandra Hearn, M.D., an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Michigan Medicine. “In fact, it’s natural to be unsure of what to say or how to approach someone who looks different from ourselves.”

Hearn designed the curriculum, and it was recently published on MedEdPORTAL to enable other institutions to download and replicate the session in their own education programs. The downloadable materials include the complete session video, with built-in pause points for reflection and discussion, as well as presentation slides with embedded videos. The accompanying report describes the session and shows how it was assessed by students.

“We built this interactive session to help medical students reflect upon and better prepare themselves for approaching individuals with disabilities in clinical encounters,” she says. “I felt we needed a session that would allow students to reflect on their own responses and anxieties, as well as experience and relate to the common humanness that we all share, across the range of abilities we each have.”

Hearn wanted the curriculum to address that caring for patients isn’t a one-type-fits-all approach, and that backgrounds and biases in physicians should be recognized.

“Interacting well with someone with a disability isn’t about memorizing what to say or how to position one’s body,” Hearn says. “It’s about connecting to a human being in spite of the differences between all of us. And if we’re a little nervous seeing someone who’s different, making ourselves feel guilty about this natural reaction isn’t going to make us doctor better. We should recognize our own responses, recognize the biases we may carry and then move forward with our desire to connect and serve.”