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Mistreatment of physicians with disabilities is widespread, study finds

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Offensive remarks, threats of violence come from coworkers and patients alike

Doctors with physical disabilities face far more mistreatment from colleagues and patients than those without disabilities, a new study finds.

Researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 5,851 physicians about their disability status, of whom 178 reported having a disability. Members of the latter group were asked how often they had experienced mistreatment during the previous 12 months. Types of mistreatments included physical harm and threats of it, unwanted sexual advances, and offensive comments regarding the person’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability and personal beliefs

The survey, which took place between February and March of 2019, found that 64% of physicians with disabilities experienced some form of mistreatment during 2019. Moreover, they were significantly more likely to experience it than their non-disabled colleagues.

For example, 52% of those with disabilities said they had been physically harmed, or threatened with harm by a coworker, compared with 6.6% of those without disabilities. Similarly, 66% of physicians with disabilities said they had been harmed or threatened by a patient, compared with 5.3% of those without disabilities. Regarding sexual advances, 31% of those with disabilities said they had been the target of them from coworkers and 40% from patients, versus 7.5% and 16%, respectively, among physicians without disabilities.

The authors say their findings may help explain earlier research showing that the prevalence of people with disabilities declines through the stages of medical education and training. While 8.3% of students entering medical school have a disability, that drops to 7.5% among residents and 3.1% among practicing physicians.

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The impact of mistreatment may also be felt in the quality of care physicians with disabilities provide. “Given the known association between mistreatment and burnout and the negative impacts of burnout on patient care, mistreatment of disabled physicians could harm the patients they serve,” the authors write.

To address the problem the study’s authors recommend that health care institutions widely disseminate procedures for reporting mistreatment, including incorporating them into trainee and employee onboarding procedures. Even more important, they say, is creating a culture of trust and accountability so that those who experience mistreatment aren’t afraid to report it.

Finally, they note, people with disabilities don’t want special treatment but do want to be valued for what they can contribute to medicine, such as empathy and lived experience as patient. Consequently, institutions should include disability among their justice, equity, diversity and inclusion policies.

The study, “Patient And Coworker Mistreatment of Physicians With Disabilities,” appears in the October 2022 issue of Health Affairs.


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