‘It’s about us needing us’: How Michigan Medicine is improving access to education

August 1, 2019  //  FOUND IN: Strategy & Leadership,

“At this med school, the perfect student strikes a balance that includes superior intellect, an orientation toward team and a great deal of heart. Some of these perfect students have disabilities.”

That’s the message that begins a video from MDisability — a new program housed in the Department of Family Medicine and the U-M Medical School that is looking to ensure that the brightest minds across the world have access to a medical education.

It’s a message that’s all about inclusion — acknowledging that the best caregivers are often those who understand patients and can relate to them and their circumstances.

Capturing experiences

Michael M. McKee, M.D., M.P.H., meets with a young patient with a hearing disability.

MDisability is bringing together a team of experts in clinical care, medical education, research, community outreach and adaptive sports to help improve access and care for many individuals with disabilities. It is also working closely with many other medical students, rehabilitation experts, engineers and architects across different departments throughout U-M.

The MDisability team focuses on greater inclusion and recognition of the benefits of having providers with disabilities.

From its 10-year prospective study on the prevalence of disability in medicine to capturing the experiences of individuals with disabilities in medical education — which inform the need for thoughtful admissions policies and progressive technical standards — the team comes together to reduce barriers to medical education and improve inclusion.

“We have some of the absolute leaders in the country, and in fact in the world, right here at U-M,” said Lisa Meeks, Ph.D., M.A., assistant professor of family medicine. “So we’re joining these forces together to ensure the brightest students have access to an education — and a profession — that needs the perspective of a person with a disability.”

Not wanting to show weakness

As of now, the best estimate is that 2.7 percent of medical students disclose that they have a disability. That number is far below the national average of individuals with disabilities, which is thought to be nearly 20 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We have this preconceived notion that our physicians are free from limitation or disability themselves,” said Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of family medicine and physical rehabilitation, who also serves at the director of medical student programs in OHEI and director of adaptive sports in MCHAMP. Okanlami uses a wheelchair for mobility. “Even when I have my white coat on, people think that I play some other role within Michigan Medicine, they don’t expect me to be a physician.”

Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, M.D., M.S., left, participates in a drop-in wheelchair basketball game on campus.

Philip Zazove, M.D., the George A. Dean, M.D., Professor and Chair of Family Medicine, has had similar experiences.

“Even though I’m successful and a head of a department, not infrequently people’s behavior toward me changes when they see me — ‘What, a deaf doctor? That’s impossible!’” Zazove said.

Michael M. McKee, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of family medicine and a physician with clinical and research expertise in disability health, sees patients at the Dexter Health Center, where he is the director of the Deaf Health Clinic. During his medical education, McKee recalled “a very influential professor who encouraged me not to go into medicine, and actually told me that I would never become a doctor and that I stole a place from a hearing student who would become more successful.”

Those are perceptions that the new program is aiming to reduce — or eliminate altogether. And doing so begins at the medical school level.

“We need to build a diverse health care team that includes members with a disability. This will allow us to be better equipped to care for a diverse patient population,” said McKee. “Many patients with disabilities struggle with significant health care burdens and gaps. MDisability is working to address this through a number of clinical, educational, research and community efforts.”

The first step at U-M was a total revision of the medical school’s technical standards, making them among the most progressive in the country. The addition of a specialized disability professional and planned trainings for faculty and staff round out the initial efforts to make U-M the premier training institution for qualified learners with disabilities.  

Making it work

Molly Fausone, who sustained an injury in high school and now uses a wheelchair for mobility, said U-M’s work has been vital. In fact, she had an offer to another medical school rescinded once they learned of her disability.

“Michigan was different, they were the only school who called me,” Fausone said. “They told me they were excited to have me and asked, ‘how can we make this work?’”

Molly Fausone, right, said U-M has been a partner on her medical education journey.

Since then, Fausone and the school have worked together to allow her to complete surgery rotations and other physical exams. Her disability was never viewed as a limitation.

MDisability aims to learn from her — and other students’ — experiences to become a national and international resource for medical and health science education programs that want to ensure they are following best practices for inclusion of students with disabilities.

“If we’re eliminating a certain percentage of the population simply because they have a disability, we’re eliminating some incredible future doctors from entering the field,” Meeks said. “That does us a disservice and does our patients a disservice.”

It’s that line of thinking that ends the MDisability video: “It’s not about them needing us. It’s about us needing us.”

Check out the video from MDisability above!