To better serve patients with disabilities, physicians should develop disability humility, improve communication with patients, and recognize patients as experts, according to commentary published in the AMA Journal of Ethics.

Joel Michael Reynolds, PhD, makes his case on the basis of recent disability theory.

Dr Reynolds argues that physicians must develop disability humility, which he defines as learning about experiences, cultures, histories, and politics of disability as well as recognizing that one’s knowledge of disability will never be complete. Because disability has medical and social components, physicians must provide care for patients that takes both of these into account.

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Improving communication with and about patients with disabilities is another key step that physicians can make. Poor patient-physician communication has been linked with significant negative health outcomes. To optimize communication with patients with disabilities, physicians must recognize both what they know and what they do not know.

Historically, the claims made by people with disabilities have been either diminished or silenced. Many able-bodied physicians are positioned as experts in disability, even when they have no lived experience. Physicians should consider patients with disabilities as experts in their disability and should always listen and consider their lived experiences.

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“Insofar as the institution of medicine aims for just and equal care across individuals and groups, clinicians and members of society at large have a responsibility to educate themselves about disability and actively work against the effects of ableism that have too long undermined the justice and effectiveness of health care delivery,” Dr Reynolds wrote.


Reynolds JM. Three things clinicians should know about disability. AMA J Ethics. 2018;20(12):E1181-E1187.