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When the doctor has a disability

Posted by Dr. Suzanne Koven  August 21, 2013 07:09 AM

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Thumbnail image for dr_william_tan.jpg In my practice, as in most medical practices, we accommodate patients' particular needs in all kinds of ways: wheelchair accessible rooms and hallways, interpreters of virtually all languages including American Sign Language, gowns and instruments in a wide range of sizes, information sheets and videos suitable for patients with a variety of educational backgrounds.

No one questions the appropriateness of these accommodations.

But what about when the doctor or nurse requires an accommodation?

A current lawsuit involving a deaf medical student at Creighton University in Nebraska invites a reconsideration of this question.

The student, Michael Argenyi, is suing Creighton because they have refused to provide an interpreter for him during his interactions with patients. One of the school's arguments is that introducing a third person into the doctor/patient interaction would be intrusive. (Though this is not an argument often used against providing an interpreter for a patient).

Argenyi's suit, it seems to me, taps into broader questions about doctors' roles. Some would argue that physicians are like other workers, whose working conditions should be protected by all sorts of laws and regulations including the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Some would argue that doctors are not like other workers, that our duty to our patients supersedes all other concerns, including our own needs. This was certainly the ethos in which I was trained, long before the current restrictions on resident work hours. I remember, back then, telling a non-medical friend about the long hours I worked and her asking, "But don't you get paid lots of overtime for that?" I laughed. There was, of course, no "overtime."

I actually don't think these two views are at odds when it comes to physicians with disabilities. Couldn't the argument be made that having a deaf physician--or one with cerebral palsy, blindness, dwarfism, or any of several differences and disabilities--has the potential to enhance patient care? I know that my own experiences with such clinicians, as a teacher, colleague and (in one case) as a patient myself, have enlarged my own sense of the ways in which disabilities can be overcome and the varied forms in which excellent and compassionate care can appear.

Is is possible that having a deaf doctor has, for some patients, therapeutic benefits that equal or even outweigh any problems that disability poses?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Suzanne Koven, M.D. practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She writes a monthly column for the Globe's G Health section and her essays have appeared in the More »


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