Treating Disabled Patients

What disabled physicians bring to medicine

DOs with disabilities diversify the physician workforce and bring insight in how to better treat disabled patients.

Nine years into practice, Brian Bonte, DO, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Gradually over 20 years, he’s adapted his family medicine practice to accommodate his disability.

When his dexterity began to decline, he stopped performing surgical procedures like vasectomies and skin lesion removals. But giving up OMT, about a quarter of his practice, six years ago after he transitioned full time to a power chair was the most frustrating.

“What I really miss is the manipulation,” Dr. Bonte says.

Over 40 million Americans live with disabilities. But between 2001 and 2010, less than one percent of medical students upon graduation had physical and sensory disabilities.  This is problematic because diversity in the physician workforce results in positive effects on patient care.

Seeing a physician like you

Studies have shown that when patients receive care from a physician similar to themselves, the physician-patient relationship is made stronger. Disabled physicians have the potential to be well-equipped to give patient-centered care to people with similar disabilities.

“I really can understand and empathize completely with people who have MS,” Dr. Bonte says.

Jan Hallock, DO, has treated several patients with her same chronic illness, but has been hesitant to share her diagnosis with them because she doesn’t want to take focus away from her patient. This hasn’t, however, stopped her from empathizing with them.

“I do express that I know how it feels to go through something like this,” Dr. Hallock says.

A new perspective to patient care

Physicians with disabilities approach care with a different perspective. Compared to physicians without disabilities, they appear more empathetic to patients with and without disabilities.

“We bring an understanding of what it’s like to be a patient,” Dr. Hallock says. “We’re on the receiving end of all the little lectures we like to give.”

Dr. Hallock has fibromyalgia, foot drop and clonus. She says she knows what it’s like to not be in control of her body so she tries to engage in as much shared decision-making as she can to make patients feel like they have input on their treatment options.

What can physicians do to best care for disabled patients?

Dr. Bonte says the most important thing physicians can do to help is be aware of the hindrances some people with disabilities go through daily, from showering to taking medications.

“When I was ambulatory I had no reason to think about accessibility, but it’s something that has opened my eyes that we have not served the disabled community as we need to,” Dr. Bonte says.

To further bring this issue to light, Dr. Bonte serves on the council for disability for the state of Minnesota, advocating for accessibility for disabled people.

For example, while it might be simple to counsel patients about the importance of a healthy diet, physicians should take things like the time required for food preparation into consideration for patients with mobility constraints, says Andrew Yuan, DO, who has an above-elbow and knee amputation on his dominant side.  It all depends on the patient.

Having clinic accommodations for disabled patients is also helpful. Dr. Yuan suggests physicians be thoughtful when booking appointments with disabled patients.

“Give them the option to see you after hours if they need to or widen doors to accommodate a wheelchair,” Dr. Yuan says.

For further reading

How I bridge 2 worlds as a deaf medical student

Part of the puzzle: Med students with autistic siblings speak out

Leave a comment Please see our comment policy