‘Missing out on some great doctors’: Medical training and disability

Amanda Lyons

16/04/2019 1:11:04 PM

Jerusha Mather is a PhD student in biomedical science. She also has cerebral palsy and is on a mission to improve access to medical education for people with disability.

Jerusha Mather
Jerusha Mather wants medical training to be more accessible to and inclusive of people with disability.

As one of the first people in Australia with cerebral palsy to undertake years of academic and medical training towards becoming a doctor, Jerusha Mather is concerned the pathway contains heretofore unconsidered barriers for people with disability.

The Graduate Medical School Admissions Test (GAMSAT), for example, is a written and timed exam followed by multiple mini interviews.

‘This causes a significant barrier for someone like me, with handwriting, reading and/or speech difficulties, because a person doing the GAMSAT test must able to annotate and speed-read,’ she told newsGP.

‘Even when provided with adjustments, the complexity and inflexibility of such a test make it an impossibility for those with physical and learning disabilities to complete under the current format.’

Jerusha believes such standardised testing disadvantages people who do not fit into the mould of the ‘standard’ student, and may even overlook other strengths they can bring.

‘This embodies Einstein’s quote, “Do not judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree”,’ she said. ‘We all have distinct needs and learning styles that need to be considered, and we are missing out one some great doctors because we are overly focused on physical attributes.

‘I think we need to be tested on our ability, not our disability.’

Jerusha was born in Sri Lanka with a diagnosis of mild-to-moderate severity cerebral palsy. After migrating to Australia with her parents at the age of two, Jerusha  was able to access rehabilitation therapy and went on to attend mainstream education.

‘I grew to love biology and neuroscience in high school and university,’ she said. ‘I also had a growing love for social justice.

‘Being born in a developing country made me think long and hard about how I could help to eradicate health equities and poverty and ensure that everyone had a nice place to call home.’  

With these goals in mind, Jerusha embarked on a PhD at Victoria University, investigating the possible improvement of motor outcomes for adults with spastic cerebral palsy using strength training and transcranial direct stimulation.

Jerusha’s history as a patient is one of the most important factors in her motivations as a doctor.

‘When I was a little girl, I wished I had a doctor with similar life experiences,’ she said.

‘Someone that could relate to me on a personal level, who could see past my challenges and accept me as I am. Someone who truly cared about my goals and aspirations and could walk beside me with grace and compassion in challenging times. Someone easy to talk to and non-judgemental.

‘This is the type of person I hope to be as a doctor.’

When it comes to tackling the rigours of the GAMSAT, Jerusha has ideas on how to make it more accessible for students with disability, including consideration of adaptive technology and services, inclusion of rest breaks, and changing the interview style.

‘A one-on-one interview style should be implemented to eradicate any further discrimination,’ Jerusha said. ‘This would also make it easier to disclose their disability or medical condition.’

She also wants to see changes in the practical medical training that follows exams, from ensuring clinics and hospitals have adaptable medical equipment suited to the needs of doctors with disability through to inclusive employment policies.

‘Every hospital and medical clinic in Australia needs to consider [these measures] and the value of having a doctor with a disability – they have so much to offer and are true assets to the profession,’ she said.

Jerusha feels her experiences on the other side of the medical system will inform her practice as a doctor in a fundamental way.

‘I know what it is like to be a patient,’ she said. ‘Therefore, I can put myself in the [patient’s] shoes and this changes my interaction with them, hopefully making them feel more secure and comfortable.’

Jerusha also hopes that through her advocacy, she can help more people like herself achieve their dreams of a medical career.

‘I hope that I am given the chance to study medicine in Australia,’ she said. ‘It is my dream and sole ambition.

‘My passion is to make a positive difference and help people to live the best life they can. I have high hopes that I will be able to resolve rare cases, eradicate inequities and most importantly, spread all the love and compassion I have for people.’

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Mark Miller   24/04/2019 5:02:29 PM

A lovely article Amanda Lyons about vibrant young professional Jerusha Mather. I hope her aspirations are fulfilled and that she considers a career in general practice as someone brave enough at such a young age to quote Einstein.