Dr Eleanor Powers is a doctor in training specialising in public health. Here, she reflects on the valuable insight that doctors with health needs bring to medical practice, and the importance of the GMC’s consultation on supporting disabled medics.  

As someone who spent their whole Foundation programme juggling clinic work and a progressive physical disability, I’ve been very pleased to contribute to the GMC’s ongoing review of its guidance for educators and employers on supporting disabled students and doctors. The final document will be named Welcomed and valued – aspirational, certainly, but is it realistic?

I would say yes, because I’ve had that experience myself. I arrived at my first employing trust newly diagnosed and still reeling. I found myself welcomed, supported, encouraged and enabled to complete my Foundation training in a manner so understated that I almost took it for granted.

This was crucial to my progression. I had been told – as so many other doctors with disabilities are – that I ‘couldn’t do’ medicine. The goal I’d pursued through five years of university. Thanks to the support I received in becoming a less than full time trainee, and in returning to work following surgeries, I was able to give years of clinical practice to the NHS before progressing to my speciality training of choice.

And did I add value to my team and to my patients? The first and most obvious point may be that in the current climate, any competent working doctor is a valuable asset. But disabled doctors add more than their presence – experience, insight and empathy spring to mind. But having a physical disability also teaches you resilience, resource-husbandry and efficiency that the average young doctor, with a full candle still to burn at both ends, may only come to understand when they burn out.

This is the value that we can bring to our colleagues. The GMC wants to improve the support for disabled students and doctors, but when you read the themes of their roundtables [PDF] and discussions, what comes through is a plea for flexibility, for good occupational health, for it to be recognised that doctors can in fact be patients. These are not issues that limit themselves to those in the box labelled ‘disabled’, it is just that we face them more often, and often earlier in our careers.

Fitness to practice, sometimes in the most literal sense, must remain at the heart of everything we do as doctors, but consider the difference between impairment and disability.

My impairment was an inability to stand for prolonged periods on my prematurely arthritic hips. But, with some simple adjustments, this didn’t disable me from working as a doctor – I was able to join the team on ward rounds in a wheeled chair. Yet, I saw pregnant colleagues suffer in silence with much the same problem. Similarly, I saw those who didn’t need to eat on schedule for their pain medication skip lunches or get by on a handful of chocolates from the nurses’ station.

Medical practice does not of itself require heroic physical fitness, so why does this culture of grim endurance persist? We are all sometimes ‘impaired’ by our needs as humans (to eat and to sleep, for example). Workplaces that allow us to meet these needs ensure none of us are ‘disabled’, which not only benefits us as individual doctors, but also our teams and our patients.

If the GMC can help to promote a culture where disabled students and doctors are truly Welcomed and valued, I believe the lot of all doctors would be bettered. I encourage you to contribute to the consultation. I also encourage you to consider your own physical and mental needs – the fully robotic physician is not with us yet.

Respond to the GMC’s consultation on its guidance for educators and employers on supporting disabled learners or those with health conditions by 20 September 2018 to have your say.