'You can’t be a doctor, a mummy and a patient. Reconsider your career.'
These words have echoed in my ears since 2015. These words ended my training.
As a trainee, my supervisor noticed gait disturbance and I was diagnosed with MS. We never spoke about it other than at changeover, when he said 'it’s ok Clodagh, I told them about you, but that you’re alright because you’re not always off sick'.
Following that changeover, I had a period of planned absence. I returned to be told that I would not be given the same training opportunities as my peers and that I would not achieve signoff, because you can’t be a doctor, a mummy and a patient.
Occupational health sent letters containing sensitive personal information to multiple members of staff. I was quizzed about my health and treatment by a member of medical staffing who was 'just interested'.
The training school would not address any issues directly. Keep your head down and get on with it was the extent of their support.
At every turn there was negativity. There was the implication that I didn’t belong; the inference that I should be grateful for being allowed to remain on the medical register. Confidentiality didn’t apply to me.
And that was without patients and colleagues gossiping, questioning and passing comment. 'Not much of a doctor if you can’t fix yourself, are you?' was one such quip.
I faced all this alone. There was, and still is, no one in my organisation in any leadership role who openly has a disability. There were no voices of support. No one with lived experience. No one to help me as a very vulnerable junior stand up to any of the senior staff who treated me appallingly and flagrantly discriminated against me because of my physical impairment.
Sadly I am not alone in my experience. In a BMA survey of disability within the profession, 77% of respondents worried about being treated unfavourably if they disclosed a disability. Some 40% of survey respondents reported bullying, discrimination and harassment following their disclosure.
You will have colleagues with a disability or long-term condition hiding their difference through fear of being alone. Being the odd one out. Of suddenly being less valued. While I have the strength to discuss these issues openly and frankly today, that strength has been a long time in the making.
BMA’s UK SAS conference in 2022 was the first time I publicly and willingly disclosed my diagnosis. I didn’t sleep the night before. I cried big, fat, ugly tears after. I am diagnosed almost a decade and this fear of disclosure doesn’t diminish. Disabled doctors are not out in the open. There is very little support and acceptance of disability within the profession or indeed within the NHS as a whole.
Access to a disability champion – to support from someone like me, with shared, lived experience; someone able to guide me through the very dark tunnel – would have saved me from years of struggle, anguish and appalling treatment.
NHS England data showed 63% of Trusts had a disability champion at senior level, yet only 8% of hospital doctors responding were aware of their existence. It has taken me a long time to realise it, but I am no less valuable a clinician today using two crutches than I was 10 years ago without them.
I am quite the opposite. I deserve fair and equal treatment. I deserve respect. I deserve confidentiality. I deserve support. And so do all of my colleagues who are hiding their condition out of fear.
At the BMA annual representative meeting this year my motion calling for BMA to lobby all departments of health and health service employers to mandate for disability champions and widen the support offered to doctors living with disability was carried.
This is an enormous step forward in ensuring a voice for the underheard and underrepresented disabled NHS workers. We deserve representation at senior level. All employing organisations must install a visible, vocal disability champion with lived experience and where they exist, they must be promoted widely, easily accessible and facilitated to enact cultural change towards acceptance of disability within the medical profession and the NHS as a whole.
Clodagh Corrigan is an emergency medicine specialty doctor in Northern Ireland and joint deputy chair of the Northern Ireland SAS committee