Disabled doctors are not getting support they are entitled to and many fear unfair treatment if they speak out, BMA survey reveals

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Location: England
Published: Wednesday 12 August 2020

Hundreds of disabled doctors and medical students are not getting adjustments in their workplace they’re legally entitled to and many say they’re too afraid to discuss their disability for fear of prejudice. These are the findings of UK-wide research, published by the BMA today.

More than 700 doctors and medical students from across the UK took part in the research by the Association, which found that just 55% are receiving the adjustments they need. This is despite it being a legal duty on the part of an employer, education or training provider to make sure disabled people are not substantially disadvantaged.

What’s more, 77% of respondents told the BMA that they were worried about being treated unfavourably if they disclosed a disability or long-term health condition, and only two in five (41%) said that telling their workplace or medical school had led to improved support. 

One respondent told the BMA: “I was questioned so much on why I needed what I needed and waited so long for senior managers to approve that there was so little time left in post, it was not worth getting the equipment.”

A medical student added: “The individual teachers I encountered were enthusiastic about helping disabled students, however the administration of the medical school would not arrange additional support when students require something beyond that which their immediate teachers could provide.”

It’s often assumed that ‘adjustments’ mean physical or structural alterations, but the BMA’s survey shows that most requests relate to policies, procedures and practices and that significant numbers of disabilities are not physical. 

In fact, the most commonly requested change is flexible working, with the majority of respondents (57%) saying they had asked for an alteration in their hours of work, training or study, while a further 48% had asked for time off for appointments.

Only one in ten (11%) had requested changes to buildings or premises, and around a third (34%) had asked for specialist equipment. 

Nevertheless, trying to get these changes or adaptations in place can be incredibly stressful and longwinded, potentially discouraging doctors from staying in the NHS and further exacerbating the workforce crisis.

According to the survey, lengthy and complex processes, slow or only partial implementation, a lack of engagement by employers and schools, and perceived costs or impacts on others are listed as frequent barriers, with some not even asking for fear of negative career consequences.

Dr Hannah Barham-Brown, a GP trainee who sits on the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group at the BMA, and who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and uses a wheelchair, said: “Disabled doctors and medical students are highly-valued colleagues in the NHS, bringing a wealth of talent and understanding of patient perspectives to their work.

“Anyone working in the health service should receive appropriate support when they need it, including those living with disabilities, be they visible or not, to ensure they can do their jobs properly and without fear of being put at a disadvantage.

“It’s shocking to see that there are so many barriers when it comes to providing this support, but if Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s that we don’t need to waste time with red tape and bureaucratic stalling. In most cases, it’s unnecessary, slow and incredibly frustrating.

“Not only is this detrimental to patient care, but also to the future of the NHS. Waiting months, even years, for simple adjustments is demoralising, so it’s no surprise that many respondents have considered leaving the NHS altogether as a result. 

“All of this, however, is completely avoidable, which is why we need to see more employers and training and education providers do what they are legally bound to do – provide disabled doctors and medical students with the support they need as a matter of upmost urgency. 

“The NHS prides itself on being an inclusive place to work, but this means nothing without considering both those currently working in the health service, and those yet to come.”

Dr Lewis Hughes, who is the BMA Scottish Junior Doctors Committee co-chair and a Type 1 diabetic, said: “Working as a disabled doctor can be incredibly challenging, so it’s vital that anyone who needs reasonable adjustments is able to get them, and that these survey results are taken seriously by employers and medical schools across the UK.

“This is especially important for students and trainees who will work in several hospital and departments as part of their training and have to resubmit reasonable adjustment requests each time they move, sometimes getting them and sometimes not.

“This is unacceptable and must be addressed going forward, along with the currently limited types of reasonable adjustments available and how they can be tailored to each person, rather than using a ”one size fits all” approach which ends up not being fitting for anyone at all.

“Most importantly, no student or doctor should ever be made to feel unable to speak out about their disability or to seek the adjustments they need to help them care for patients effectively. It’s clear from today’s survey that more must be done to make sure disabled colleagues feel just as valued as the people they’re committed to caring for.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

The BMA is a trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors and medical students in the UK.

A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.