By Reuters Staff

(Reuters Health) – A growing number of doctors in training have psychological disorders and chronic health problems, a U.S. study suggests.

Researchers analyzed data on disabilities reported by students at 64 U.S. medical schools in 2016 and 2019. The proportion of students reporting disabilities climbed 69% during this period, from 2.7% to 4.6%.

“The inclusion of individuals with disabilities is an important contribution to diversity in medicine,” lead study author Lisa Meeks of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues write in JAMA.

The study didn’t look at factors that might have contributed to the rising proportion of medical students with disabilities, but the researchers raise several possibilities.

The increase “may be a result of more applicants with disabilities being admitted to medical school, more existing students disclosing disability, better reporting of disability data, or increased development of psychological disability while attending medical school,” Meeks and colleagues write.

Between 2016 and 2019, reporting of psychological disorders like anxiety and depression had climbed by 58%, affecting 32.3% of students by 2019, researchers found.

The proportion of students reporting chronic physical health problems also rose substantially, climbing 35.3% during the study period. By 2019, 18% of students reported chronic physical health problems.

The prevalence of mobility challenges rose by 9.1%, with 3.6% of students reporting these challenges in 2019.

One of the most common conditions reported by students, ADHD, became less frequent, however. By 2019, 30.4% of students reported having ADHD, down 5.9% from 2016.

Learning disabilities also became less common, dropping 14.5% to affect 18.3% of the medical students by the end of the study period.

The proportion of students with visual impairments dropped 23.3% during the study period, to 2.3% in 2019.

The number of students reporting hearing challenges also dropped, declining 33.3% to 1.2% by the end of the study period.

All of the schools in the study reported offering testing accommodations to students with disabilities in 2019.

Most also allowed other academic accommodations like flexible attendance, note-taking assistance, recorded lectures, modified textbooks, and text-to-speech computer programs.

Three in four schools said they offered accommodations for clinical exams like extra time or reduced-distraction test environments.

Only about one-third of schools offered assistive technology for clinical procedures like the use of a scribe, the ability to use lab simulations to demonstrate mastery, or assistants to perform physical clinical exams.

Some students surveyed might not have disclosed their disabilities, the researchers note. It’s also possible that schools that opted to participate in the survey had a greater proportion of students with disabilities, leading to potential overestimates, the researchers note.

And the study also doesn’t show whether students with disabilities do as well in medical school as their classmates who don’t report disabilities.

“Although an increase in disability was observed, these data do not provide information about the culture that these students experience or their retention in the training and career pipeline,” the study team writes. “Therefore, further research is needed, as documenting representation is only a first step toward enhancing the inclusion of per- sons with disabilities in medicine.”

SOURCE: JAMA, online November 26, 2019.