Watching the news over the past few months, most of us will have seen doctors and nurses working in ways that can seem almost Olympian. We see people giving their all under immense stress, over long hours, in difficult conditions. It can be hard for us then, when we see go to see a doctor with our own health problems, to remember that they might themselves have a health condition.
There are a growing number of doctors, however, who do. Some are affected by physical disabilities and some, like myself, have what are sometimes called “hidden disabilities”. Most of us will have heard of these and recognise them as conditions like type 1 diabetes, which I was diagnosed with when I was six years old.
Inflammatory bowel disease, types of arthritis and illnesses like epilepsy are amongst the hidden disabilities also. Many readers, some who will have these conditions themselves, will know that although those with such diagnoses may need to make some adjustments, they needn’t be held back.
Legally, employers like the NHS must make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for those with disabilities. Sadly, a report produced by the British Medical Association has shown that barely half of doctors who were asked were given the adjustments they needed to be their best at work.
What is more, 77 per cent of them were worried that if they disclosed their illness, they would be treated unfavourably. The adjustments that people ask for are rarely complicated – the commonest adjustment requested is flexible working. For junior doctors, flexible working would often mean reducing working hours by 20 per cent at most. There are no “part-timers” here. This 20 per cent reduction still leaves you to work at least 40 hours per week on average, where you could still be rostered to work just over 90 hours in an intense week, many of these hours outside nine-to-five.
So, why is this important? Doctors with disabilities bring a wealth of personal experience to the care of patients. They bring insight and an understanding which can only be gained through walking the same road as patients themselves. They can share this with colleagues who can learn from what they have been through.
Tapping into this can only result in a more compassionate NHS and I cannot think of anything more important. If excellent patient care is a priority for our NHS, it must demonstrate this care for everyone working in it. I would much rather have 80 per cent of the working hours from a healthy doctor who can bring 100 per cent of themselves and their experience to the care of their patients.
It is surely better than getting zero per cent of a doctor who has unfortunately been forced to choose between their own health and the profession they have spent their life working for.
In a week where the opportunities of our talented young people have been at the forefront of our minds, we absolutely must ensure that the healthcare professions are welcoming to those with the drive and the capability to flourish and serve in them.
It is clear that we all feel no young person should be shut out of a profession because of the school they went to. In the same way, no young person in Scotland should feel that they are precluded from becoming a doctor because of their disability. As someone who has sat on each side of the consulting room table, the right way forward is obvious.
Employers and medical schools must take seriously the needs of those with disabilities and make sure they feel able to speak up; it is right for them, right for our patients and right for our young people.
Dr Lewis Hughes is co-chair of the BMA’s Scottish Junior Doctors Committee
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