In most cases- yes- you can apply, study and graduate as a doctor with a disability or long-term health condition. In fact, the Medical Schools Council (MSC)in the UK values the alternative experiences a person with a long-term health condition offers when studying medicine.
A person is classed as disabled if they have a long-term impairment that lasts over a year and it has a definitive effect on their daily life. The ability to study falls under the list of ‘daily activities’ that may be impacted. In general, the medical school will try to accommodate those with a disability by adjusting the curriculum and teaching resources. However, it is important to note the differences between adjustments made by medical schools and those made by placement sites. Although the medical school is often able to adjust its policy or practice, its physical environment, and its educational equipment to suit the impairment, this may not translate across to every placement site. That said, medical schools work closely with the placement providers to avoid problems arising. In the event of a placement provider not being able to accommodate someone with an impairment, the medical school will try to accommodate the student, such as by relocating them to a different site.
A medical school’s primary responsibility is to make sure you achieve the outcomes set out in the General Medical Council’s (GMC) ‘Outcomes for graduates, plus supplementary guidance’. It is their responsibility to make sure they reasonably adjust their environments (which include those specific to learning) in accordance with your impairment.
It may seem clear what defines an impairment or disability, but many disabilities go under-acknowledged, under-assessed and potentially unreported by students. This puts the student at an even bigger disadvantage. Prevalent disabilities occur in people with mobility issues, sensory impairments (sight/hearing etc.), diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, mental health conditions, learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia or recurring or fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
If you are not sure whether your impairment is regarded as a disability or enables you to adjustments in the application process/when studying, you can check the NHS website with information about your impairment. Even an accommodation such as extra time in medical school and post-graduate examinations can have a huge impact on your ability to reach the GMCs outcomes for graduates.
Informing your medical school of your disability as early on as you can is important to gaining the most support you can from them. Ideally, during the UCAS application process, logging your health condition will allow the medical school to acknowledge this and start to take steps towards adjusting their policies, physical environments or providing additional equipment. If medical schools know they can accommodate the impairment in their training (which happens in most cases), then it will not be something they consider when deciding to make you an offer. In many cases, the lived experience of a health condition can provide you with an additional level of empathy. You can explore your unique perspective of health through your personal statement and at your interview, so actually being open and honest about it can make you stand out!
Once you start medical school, you will be reviewed by the occupational health team. They may want further details about how well controlled your condition is as ultimately, they want to make sure your health is stable and that you are ‘fit to practice’. If they feel like your condition is not well controlled, they may make suggestions to help you with this or advise that you take time out of study or defer your offer and prioritise your health. They will follow you up during your time at university and ensure you are well supported. You can always approach them at any point during medical school if your situation changes or your health worsens/improves.
If you develop a disability/long-term health condition after applying to and/or whilst attending medical school, it is usually possible to continue pursuing your studies. But, it is very important to inform the medical school, occupational health and/or the disability services at the university so they are aware and can support you. In the same way, if your condition deteriorates whilst at university, it’s important to let the medical school and occupational health team know so they can offer further guidance.
There are three types of adjustments that can be made by a medical school for a student with an impairment.
This can include extra time during an interview or in a medical examination. For example, if you have dyslexia, it may take a little longer to read exam or interview questions compared to those without dyslexia
This could be such supportive changes such as installing ramps in addition to steps already present. For example, those with a neurological condition (such as paraplegia or functional neurological disease) will only really be able to attend lecture theatres with the presence of an appropriate ramp.
This is really important due to the practical nature of a medical degree. Clinical examinations and medical equipment form an integral part of training and providing adjusted equipment where possible allows the student doctor with an impairment to fully partake in the learning experience in that particular setting/skill. Such equipment can include an electronic stethoscope to allow auscultation (hearing) of heart sounds. As technology advances, barriers for medical students with disabilities can be removed with adjusted medical devices or equipment as well as changes to the physical environment.
Yes, if your health takes a turn for the worse whilst at medical school, you can always interrupt your studies and take the time you need to recover. You will need to discuss this with your medical school and the occupational health team, and together decide on an appropriate amount of time to interrupt your studies for. This may be from a few weeks to over a year in some instances. It is also important for you to speak to your own doctor in this time as they can always give you an idea on how long it will take for you to recover.
Employment settings have different policies and laws to universities, so upon graduation, a doctor with a disability will inevitably have a different experience. The university you are applying to/attending as a (prospective) medical student should be able to advise on this and support you with your transition into practice by working with postgraduate training teams and occupational health teams. It is likely that a doctor’s career path will be guided to some extent by their impairment. For example, a doctor who has an impairment of their upper limbs (e.g. an amputated hand) will be less inclined towards a surgical career path. However, where possible, additional support or adaptations will be provided so the doctor can complete the majority of skills and progress in their desired specialty.
There are plenty of inspirational stories you can find online of doctors with quite significant health conditions who are able to work and offer great care for their patients. Progressing as a doctor will unfortunately require a lot more resilience if you have a disability or long-term health condition as there are more barriers to overcome in a system set up for able-bodied people, but it is definitely possible and worthwhile if this is the career you want.
Dr Tom Wells FRCP was in a skiing accident that left him paralysed from the chest down (paraplegia) but pursued a career in medicine, nonetheless .To read more about his story, here is a linked article: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/news/doctor-can-paraplegic-oncologist
Author: William Coni
Editor: Dr Latifa Haque