When he was a resident at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, Jonathan Santoro, MD, realized the process was very ad-hoc. As a recent story in Neurology Today describes, Santoro saw that the medical students he was helping to train had favorable attitudes toward people with disabilities, but didn’t know how to get started in communicating with children who could not speak, and sometimes they felt a bit fearful or uncomfortable about the challenge.
So Santoro and developmental pediatrics fellow Emily Whitgob, MD, a former special education teacher, conferred with leaders at Stanford’s medical school and created a program that would provide a hands-on introduction to these important skills. Third-year medical student Jassi Pannu was one of the first participants of the program, now in a six-month trial period. The story describes Pannu’s experience:
‘We learned a lot during the first part of the rotation that challenged our preconceptions about disabilities, and then during the second half we got so much experience with different patients with disabilities,’ she said. ‘As a 24-year-old, my life has been mostly filled with healthy people. It’s been eye-opening to be introduced to so many people with disabilities, including kids near our own age.’
She admitted that she felt uncomfortable at first. ‘When you first encounter a child who is developmentally delayed and nonverbal it’s hard to form a connection right away because you’re used to communicating verbally and doing things a different way. The program helped me learn to form connections in nontraditional ways.’
Pannu described a five-year-old nonverbal girl with developmental delays who was always smiling, but ‘I couldn’t tell what she was thinking because she was unable to speak. Jon would hold her hand and play little games with hands, and as soon as she walked in the room she’d grab his hand and hold it the whole time.’
After the rotation, Pannu said she definitely feels more comfortable caring for patients with disabilities. ‘I don’t see how anyone practicing pediatric neurology, or neurology in general, wouldn’t benefit from a program like this. I think it’s essential. You’re going to come across patients with disabilities in your profession and you need to be at ease caring for them.’
Stanford’s program is the first focused on kids with neurological disabilities, but as the story describes, a few other medical schools also have portions of their curricula that help fledgling doctors better communicate with and understand the needs of patients with other types of disabilities.