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The Disability Health Elective: Equipping Med Students for Patient-Centered Care

There are some people you meet that end up changing your life forever. For me it was 12 young adults who signed up to learn how to play soccer. As I walked into our first practice in 2015, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I had coached soccer before, but this time I had no idea where to start or how I would do it – I was out of my comfort zone.

Sitting on the sideline at practice with my favorite Special Olympics College team

My undergraduate college was starting a Special Olympics College program, and I had signed up to help. There were 12 athletes, with various intellectual and developmental disabilities, excited to learn the game I loved. I didn’t have experience working with individuals with disabilities, and I was nervous to say the least. But as practice started, I quickly realized that disability in no way means inability.

Before going further, it’s important to recognize there are many different ways we can think about and define disability. A disability can be something someone is born with, that progresses gradually over time, or that develops abruptly. It can be genetic or acquired. They can have temporary, waxing-and-waning, or lifelong courses. And disabilities can be cognitive or developmental, like the ones I learned about through Special Olympics College, or they can be physical or sensory.

Over the next two and a half years as I continued to work with the Special Olympics College program, I realized that, because of those 12 athletes, advocating for individuals with disabilities was going to play a big part of the rest of my life. The only problem was that I was moving on to medical school, and I wasn’t sure how I could fit disability into my work. The first and second years of medical school are pretty busy, and I didn’t have a ton of time to participate in projects or research about the topic. But I did start to think of some ideas, and I knew I wanted to find a way for medical students to interact with individuals with disabilities in the community and learn more about disabilities as whole.

One way I was able to keep up my involvement with disability advocacy was through participating in the Polar Plunge, an event where people jump into freezing cold water in the middle of winter to raise awareness for Special Olympics Michigan. During my M2 year at Michigan I advertised the event and formed a team of eight UMMS students to participate in the Polar Plunge at The Big House with me. Shortly afterwards, I was contacted about the Disability Health Elective.

The Disability Health Elective was started as a Capstone for Impact project by a UMMS Class of 2020 graduate. They had seen my recent involvement with the Polar Plunge and asked me to take over as the student lead in the Spring of 2020. It was a perfect fit for me and my goals of promoting medical student involvement with the disability community. The first elective was set to launch in September 2020 so I immediately got to work identifying clinical preceptors and community organizations we could work with.

Michigan medical students Pre-Polar Plunge at The Big House

The coronavirus pandemic made much of the planning a bit more difficult, but I was lucky enough to have an amazing team and dedicated preceptors willing to find a way to make it work. With the support of Dr. Michael McKee, Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, and Dawn Michael from MDisability we were able to offer the elective for one student this past fall. The Disability Health Elective will be offered again this upcoming April, and we look forward to offering it for future years as well.

The goal of the course is to equip students to be able to provide patient-centered care for patients who have disabilities. By educating and exposing students to different areas of disability health, we hope to improve the quality of care and reduce disparities in health outcomes for people with disabilities.

This is a two-week elective offered to medical students in their Branch years. Students learn about disability health through online and didactic sessions, clinical rotations, and experiences in the community. The online curriculum is provided through a series of video lectures from Michigan Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (MI-LEND) and all students who complete the elective will receive an MI-LEND Intermediate Trainee certificate. Students are given the opportunity to customize the didactic, clinical, and community experiences to help meet their individual career goals.

Michigan medical students Post-Polar Plunge at The Big House

Speakers for our didactic sessions have ranged from community partners to clinical experts in the field on topics including disability awareness and sensitivity, growing up with a pediatric onset disability, and communicating with deaf and hard of hearing patients. Students also get to rotate through clinics with interdisciplinary teams in areas such as physical medicine and rehabilitation, otolaryngology, ophthalmology, family medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and even obstetrics and gynecology.

One of the most unique parts of the elective is that students get the opportunity to work with some of our community partners outside of health care. These include attending practices with the U-M chapter of Special Olympics College and interviewing members of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living who are transitioning from assisted to independent living. And when the pandemic winds down we are looking to add more opportunities with adaptive sports and the local school districts. These community experiences allow medical students to see what life is like outside of the clinic walls for patients with disabilities. It provides the opportunity to gain a deeper connection and understanding so that they can be better equipped to provide the best care to their future patients.

I am excited to see the expanding opportunities we will be able to provide with our elective in April, and the opportunities that will be available in the future. It has been humbling to work on this elective and spread awareness about disability health. But it has also been so rewarding to see my classmates eager to learn how they can become even more compassionate, patient-centered providers than they already are.