Doctors with Disabilities Australia

Jan 8, 2018

Dr Hannah Jackson, Hobart GP and senior university lecturer, says that she had never met another doctor in a wheelchair before she met rehabilitation and pain medicine specialist, Dr Harry Eeman. The two are now co-founders of Doctors with Disabilities Australia (DWDA), along with RMO Dr Dinesh Palipana and student Jerusha Mather.

A sense of isolation and lack of support is cited as one factor leading to doctor distress1 and it can be easy to feel that you are the only one struggling. Doctors who speak out about their health worries say that they are often surprised when peers and colleagues respond with their own ‘me too’ story. Building a career in medicine has enough inherent challenges. Add to that, being the first to try to persuade a certification body or employer that your disability will not prevent you from practising medicine and will not put patients at risk. That is largely why DWDA came about. The group aims to provide peer support and advocacy for doctors with disabilities at all levels of seniority.

The group also wants to raise awareness of the achievements of colleagues. It can be easy for employers and organisations to make assumptions that a disability will impose particular limitations. Having evidence of what can be achieved is invaluable in challenging such attitudes and stigmas.

In part, the doctors of DWDA offer experience and practical advice on how to overcome specific issues, for example how to adapt training requirements. In a highly risk-averse environment, based on ‘accepted standards of practice’, it can be difficult to accept doctors doing procedures in slightly different ways. DWDA’s experience is that having a precedent can help to ease the path for those who follow. It can help organisations feel reassured that they are not breaking dangerous new ground.

Hannah’s perspective is that medicine is evolving, if slowly. Often working around a disability means being a bit more creative in the way you approach an examination. In some areas the cultural attitudes of ‘it has always been done that way’ are deeply entrenched. But some areas are better at adapting than others. Her view is that there is general awareness in the profession that it has to change in order to reflect a changing society.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, nearly one-fifth of the population now identifies as having a disability. As a doctor, having a disability can provide a unique insight into the patient experience, and the challenges of accessing and navigating healthcare systems. But Hannah points out that it’s not just patients who have a specific disability who may appreciate better access. With an ageing population, general access issues are becoming more widespread, and Hannah’s elderly patients have all welcomed her hydraulic examination table as it means they don’t have to climb up steps to reach it.

However, she is also quick to note that having a disability doesn’t necessarily give you any magical insight into a patient’s situation. Sometimes her disability is totally irrelevant and her life experience doesn’t give her any advantages in helping to address the patient’s needs.

It can be tempting to look at the challenges colleagues with a disability have had to overcome and think that somehow must make them more resilient. But Hannah is keen to challenge that misconception as well. “Medicine can be tough,” she says, “and when tough things happen in medicine what’s most helpful is to have supportive and understanding mentors and colleagues.” Listening to each other, empathising, acknowledging another’s struggle, having someone share the fact that they have had their own tough times and come out the other side, any one of these can make a difference. And that is something any one of us can offer.

Avant member Dr. Hannah Jackson is a general practitioner in Hobart, Tasmania and a senior university lecturer in general practice. Hannah has osteogenesis imperfecta and is a manual wheelchair user.

If you would like more information about Doctors with Disabilities Australia, you can contact them through their website: www.dwda.org.au

If this article raises issues for you, you can also seek help from your own GP and Doctors' Health Advisory Services:

ACT 02 9437 6552  

NSW 02 9437 6552

QLD 07 3833 4352

SA 08 8366 0250

VIC 03 9495 6011

WA 08 9321 3098

beyondblue 1300 224 636  

Avant health and wellbeing resources

1for example in the recent NSW Health JMO Wellbeing and Support Plan

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