ADHD News & Research

More Medical Students Have ADHD and Learning Disabilities Than Previously Estimated

Nearly 3 percent of U.S. medical students have some form of disability, a much higher number than ever before estimated. This finding points to the need to decrease stigma and improve accommodations for these soon-to-be doctors.

January 9, 2017

Disabilities — including ADHD, learning disabilities, and mobility disabilities — may be more common in US medical students than ever before estimated, a new report finds. But remaining stigma — as well as accommodations that sometimes fall short of students’ needs — point to the need for further research and improved interventions for disability, the authors of the report say.

The researchers, who published their report in the December 6 issue of JAMA, surveyed disability administrators from 89 medical schools in the U.S. whose job it is to identify and assist students with disabilities. The administrators reported that nearly 3 percent of their students — more than 1,500 in total — were identified as having a disability. Previous studies on the subject had put the disability rate of medical students between 0.3 and 0.6 percent.

ADHD, learning disabilities, and psychological disabilities were the most commonly reported, affecting 33.7, 21.5, and 20 percent of the students with disabilities, respectively. Mobility, vision, and hearing disabilities were less common; each was reported by less than 3 percent of the disabled respondents.

An encouraging 98 percent of the students with disabilities were receiving accommodations, the report said, though less than half of the schools (40 percent) offered accommodations to assist students with disabilities during clinical instruction. While test-taking accommodations (the most commonly used by the students) can be helpful, clinical accommodations can level the playing field for students with disabilities in real-world medical situations.

Given the stigma surrounding disabilities, including psychological and neurological disabilities, the researchers suspect that the rate of disability among medical students may still be underreported.

“It remains unclear how many medical students have disabilities; prior estimates are out of date and psychological, learning and chronic health disabilities have not been evaluated,” the authors wrote. “Given the stigma surrounding psychological disabilities, it is plausible that these disabilities were underrepresented.” They also acknowledge that the results may not extrapolate perfectly to other medical schools across the country.

But the high rate of accommodations — plus the overall increased representation of budding doctors with disabilities — encouraged the researchers. The high rate of ADHD and learning disabilities, in particular, highlights the need to focus specifically on these disabilities and how medical students can be accommodated in the future.

“The preponderance of students with ADHD, learning disabilities, and psychological disabilities suggests that these disability subtypes should be included in future research efforts, such as studies assessing the performance of appropriately accommodated students,” they wrote.