I’ve been told you can’t be a doctor and have dyslexia

Kathryn Speedy, a higher trainee (ST5) in CAMHS, on navigating dyslexia, workplace bullying, and working less than full-time

Location: Wales
Published: Thursday 24 March 2022

At school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t overly focussed on the future. I was interested in people and science, but also enjoyed arts and humanities. Medicine seemed a good combination of all of these. There aren’t any doctors in my family, so I arranged some work experience and knew then I wanted to do medicine. I remember reading ‘to be a doctor is to make a difference’ and thinking, ‘I want to make that difference!’

I was diagnosed with dyslexia after failing an exam at medical school. It came as a surprise as I had been a straight A student during school and had sailed through my exams.

When I started university, I struggled to keep up during lectures and adjust to a new style of examinations. Both of my younger brothers had been diagnosed – one at school and one after starting university – so my mum suggested I do a screening questionnaire, which indicated I would benefit from further assessment.

Initially I was upset. Having dyslexia wasn't in keeping with my perfectionist views, but I quickly began to see the benefits of having a better understanding of my learning style and the additional support. My grades improved, and with time, I’ve come to see having dyslexia as a strength. It’s certainly helpful in my chosen specialty, where I need a high level of empathy, excellent problem-solving skills, and the ability to work systemically.

I had some extra time and a smaller, quieter venue for my professional exams, but aside from making sure I take extra care when writing prescriptions and doing them somewhere without distractions, I don’t need any adjustments at work.

For those considering medicine who have dyslexia, I would say, don’t let it be the reason you don't apply. I’ve had people tell me that you can’t have dyslexia and be a doctor, but I have many colleagues with dyslexia who are evidence to the contrary. If you’re a student or doctor and think you may have dyslexia, speak to your local support unit, and ask about testing. It’s usually funded, and you’ll gain a better understanding of your own learning style, strengths and weaknesses.

Essential support

I currently work less than full-time hours (LTFT) and it can be a challenge. There are never enough hours in the day to do everything. You feel guilty saying no to things, people make judgements or assumptions about you, you’re paid less, and training takes longer. On the plus side, it allows me to have time at home with my children, who are growing up quickly and I realise that I’m so lucky to be able to have this time with them.

It feels like I’ve been a trainee for a long time, when some of my peers have now become consultants, but I try not to draw comparisons. We all have unique career paths, and that’s one of the great things about a career in medicine. It’d be easy to become weighed down by negatives, but I find trying to reframe things and focusing on positives really helps. I'm also trying hard to address the challenges and improve the LTFT experience for future trainees, through my work with the HEIW Trainee Think Tank.

I also had issues following my maternity leave around incorrect pay. It’s not a straightforward process to navigate and it’s difficult to get advice in workplaces about maternity leave. My experience involved many phone calls to payroll and speaking to BMA advisers. I’d advise all my LTFT colleagues and those considering LTFT to join a union. I’ve used mine many times for advice including incorrect rotas, calculations of hours and pay.

Crisis of confidence

I do think that I have imposter syndrome, despite being in my job for many years. The irony of this is I was always told I was ‘too good to be a psychiatrist’, that my skills ‘would be wasted in psychiatry’. However, I knew since a medical school placement in CAMHS that I wanted to work in psychiatry, where you have a unique opportunity to improve the lives of children and young people. There is a lot of stigma associated with mental health problems, when there really shouldn’t be.

In one workplace, I was bullied for speaking out against proposed rota changes that would have been unsafe and unfair on junior doctors. I wasn’t invited to meetings, and I was made to feel unwelcome in the doctors' mess and at the weekly postgraduate teaching programme. My confidence was shattered, I felt undervalued, and I started to dread going to work.

I spoke to the BMA, who put me in touch with the LNC (local negotiating committee). It was such a relief to have people tell me that I was right to be concerned, and I was grateful for their support. Ultimately, I ended up leaving that toxic environment and moving to a post in a different health board, along with several of my colleagues. 

Don't be afraid to say ‘no’ to things. No one can do everything

It took me a while to rebuild my confidence, but two years later I won a HEIW BEST trainee award. When I look back, although I was unhappy at the time, I did learn a lot from the experience, particularly about the kind of medical leader that I’d like to become and perhaps more importantly, the kind of leader that I don’t want to be!

If I could give advice to women considering a career as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’d say it’s a very supportive specialty. I like that there is a systematic approach to patient care and working as part of a multidisciplinary team. However, it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the workload, and so I’d say don't be afraid to say no to things. No one can do everything, and no one is perfect.

I’d tell my younger self to have the strength and courage to believe in myself and follow my dreams, and not to listen to others who might try to deter me. Things have a way of working out for the best and it’s important to learn from the challenges you come up against and the mistakes you’ve made, and move on.