Neurodiversity in Medical Education and Training
Neurodiversity in Medical Education and Training
As a nursing student and later a nurse practitioner student, I had no idea how much I was missing. Even though I went to a great university and had an excellent clinical experience, there were so many things that I wasn’t able to learn and experience. While healthcare professionals can’t encounter every possible circumstance in their training, one area is grossly overlooked and, in some cases, even ignored.
Throughout my education, I learned about working with different types of patients. Pediatric, adolescent, teen, adult, geriatric, different religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds were all discussed. However, there was little to no mention of working with Neurodivergent patients.
Neurodiversity is a population that has continually been underserved due to the lack of training that healthcare practitioners of all kinds are not getting. This is ironic because many of my current patients are treated for ADHD. I have multiple autistic patients as well. After real-life experience with various patient populations, I became aware of this lack of training. Why is this primarily ignored in medical training and education?
How much neurodiversity education do medical providers have?
The short answer is very little. Very few nursing or medical schools currently have a curriculum that addresses Neurodiversity. Some doctors and nurses may go through their entire education and clinical experience without meaningful interactions with neurodivergent patients.
Even when medical students have the opportunity to work with neurodivergent patients, they may need to be taught accurate or helpful information about this patient population. More experienced providers also did not receive training in this area and are sometimes unprepared to teach students what they need to know.
While there are few formal education opportunities, medical providers have access to continuing education courses in Neurodiversity. Due to increasing awareness of the problem of the lack of education, more and more courses are being offered to practitioners to expand their knowledge and experience working with the Neurodivergent population. Some larger medical corporations even require their staff to take courses specific to Neurodiversity. While this is helpful, it doesn’t fully close the gap in much-needed training.
What are the potential problems with having undertrained medical providers?
Without meaningful interactions with neurodivergent patients in training, doctors and nurses may inadvertently treat their neurodivergent patients inappropriately when they begin their practice. Issues with communication and a lack of understanding of the patient’s needs can cause problems to be overlooked, which results in poor outcomes for the patient.
Some general practitioners even feel that treating Nuerodivergent patients is not their job. They think that Neurodiversity is a concern for a specialist to handle. However, there is not currently a specialty in Neurodiversity. Many patients who are autistic or ADHD are referred to psychiatry for treatment, even if what they need is something that could and should be treated by a medical provider.
This is not due to a lack of caring or incompetence. Medical providers always want what is best for the patient and always want the best outcome possible. The problem is due to a need for more awareness and education. Physicians have self-reported having inadequate knowledge and training on Neurodiversity, leading to a lack of confidence in treating this patient population. Many struggle to provide and coordinate care for their Neurodivergent patients.
Changing the current landscape
Thankfully, not everyone is ignoring this problem. In recent years, schools like Stanford Medical School have begun incorporating Neurodiversity training into their current curriculum. Not only does Stanford Medicine teach doctors in training about neurodiversity, the work to place medical students in clinics that will give them hands-on experience working with Neurodiverse patients.
Other schools like Georgetown University and The University of Minnesota have developed similar programs to help make healthcare more inclusive of Neurodiverse individuals. Many of these programs have been initiated by students who have witnessed the lack of experience of medical professionals in dealing with Neurodiversity.
Operation House call, operated by The Arc of Massachusettes, is teaching 3rd-year medical students the skills they need to provide better care to neurodivergent patients. This program allows medical students to work closely with neurodivergent patients and their families in the home and clinical setting. This course is now required for 3rd-year medical students on their pediatric rotation and has been hugely successful since its initiation in 1991.
Programs such as Operation House Call and student-led groups like “Neurodiversity in Medicine” of The University of Minnesota have been making significant strides in improving the knowledge and skills of young doctors and nurses going into practice. These well-trained providers can provide a more inclusive environment and better medical care for their neurodivergent patients.
The field of medicine is forever changing. Physician training and education has to change with it. As Neurodiversity awareness increases, more and more medical and nursing schools will begin to incorporate effective education for future providers to treat their Neurodivergent patients properly.
There are increasingly more continuing education opportunities for those already in practice to expand their knowledge and skills on Neurodiversity. While it is voluntary in many cases, some hospitals and clinics require this education for their medical staff.
I hope that more healthcare professionals will seek this training as they become aware of the gaps in their knowledge. Education and learning never stop, and healthcare workers should continue to pursue learning opportunities in Neurodiversity. As we all want to provide the best care for our patients, our duty and obligation are to gain experience that will better serve all of our patients, especially those who have previously been ignored or undertreated.
- Young Doctors Call for More Attention to Disabled Patients. Medscape. October 27, 2022 https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/983122?icd=login_success_gg_match_norm&isSocialFTC=true#vp_2
- Physician Bias May Prevent Quality Care for Patients with Disabilities. Medscape, October 3, 2022 https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/981771
- Training Doctors in Neurodiversity, with Lauren Clarke, BS, MHA. Differentbrains.org. https://differentbrains.org/training-doctors-in-neurodiversity-with-lauren-clarke-bs-mha-edb-275/
- Embracing Neurodiversity in Our Health System. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.aap.org/en/news-room/aap-voices/embracing-neurodiversity-in-our-health-systems/
- Stanford Neurodiversity Project. Stanford Medicine. https://med.stanford.edu/neurodiversity.html
- New Student Group Focuses on Neurodiversity in Medicine. The University of Minnesota. https://med.umn.edu/news/new-student-group-focuses-neurodiversity-medicine
Operation House Call. The Arc Massachusetts. https://thearcofmass.org/ohc/
About the Author
Amy Burden is a Family Nurse Practitioner, Health Content Writer, and an ally to the neurodivergent community. She has a passion for helping people and enjoys volunteering her time to advocate for education, accessibility, and kindness.