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What They Don't Teach (Enough) in Med School: Disability Awareness

PHOTO: Tufts School of Medicine students in an Operation House Call classroom session this month. Courtesy OHC.
PHOTO: Tufts School of Medicine students in an Operation House Call classroom session this month. Courtesy OHC.
September 26, 2012

BOSTON - Medical students study a lot, but one thing frequently missing from their training is how to interact with patients who have intellectual or developmental disabilities.

A proven program to address that shortcoming, begun at Boston University School of Medicine, is expanding to other area schools. Operation House Call sends medical students to the homes of families with special-needs children, to get acquainted in a non-clinical setting.

Maura Buckley, who has two sons with autism spectrum disorder and mitochondrial disease, says many doctors simply don't know how to communicate and work with children with these challenges.

"Even a good doctor who's inexperienced can be discouraged. They can have shorter exams. They can pass on taking children with problems or difficulties that they're not comfortable with."

The students also attend an instructional session - Buckley is one of the instructors - and are required to post their observations from the "house call" on a chat board to be shared with fellow students and instructors alike. Tufts University Medical School and Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences are adopting the program that began in the 1990s at BU.

Christopher Strader, a third-year medical student at BU, says Operation House Call is a great way to become comfortable with a different demographic of patients that he'll be seeing as a physician.

"You go to the house, spend an hour with the kids, an hour with the parents. And then, the final part is that you have to - in a chat room, you have to - write about your experience. Everybody posts their experience on the board. You can read other people’s and your own."

Mandy Nichols, director of public policy and outreach for The Arc of Massachusetts, administers Operation House Call and points out that current medical-school exams include no questions related to disability awareness. She's pleased the program has been welcomed at Tufts and Simmons.

"That's pretty good progress for us to be able to get there, but I think what we really want is other schools to adopt this, which does mean that schools are going to have to fund this."

Some similar courses exist at other medical schools but don't involve family members or family interaction. Nichols believes Operation House Call can and should be adopted widely across the nation.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - MA