Dyslexia needn’t hold doctors back

Failing kindergarten was the first of many school struggles for Blake Charlton. Diagnosed with dyslexia, he was relegated to remedial classes that he barely passed. Now, at 35, reading still poses a challenge. He’s a self-described “crummy” speller who manages written communications by relying on abbreviations. People who recall his academic difficulties are often surprised at the abbreviation that now follows his name: M.D.

“For much of high school and college, I didn’t think medical school was a possibility,” said Charlton, who’s now a medical resident at the University of California, San Francisco and an editorial fellow for the American Medical Association journal JAMA Internal Medicine. “I spent a lifetime having to ride the short bus, identifying as someone who needs help.”

Several years after Charlton finished college, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Caring for his father, Charlton realized that his desire to become a doctor outweighed his fear of failure.

Receiving time accommodations to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), Charlton earned entry into Stanford University School of Medicine. Most classmates didn’t know of his disability, and his patients don’t, either.

Charlton is a dyslexic doctor, and although studies are scant, researchers say he is one of many. Charlton knows of two others at UCSF alone.

According to the Dyslexia Research Institute, up to 15 percent of Americans are affected by this neurological difference, resulting in language, perceptual and processing difficulties. The percentage of dyslexic doctors is difficult to measure, as many fear that disclosure could thwart professional development and compromise the trust of patients.

For a recent paper in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, Jean Robson at Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary in Dumfries, UK, and colleagues interviewed seven dyslexic first-year physicians in the Scottish National Health Service. Most said they had not disclosed their dyslexia and had experienced difficulty with communication, time-management and anxiety. (The paper is online here: bmj.co/1LKRIB4.)

Commenting on those interviews, Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a physician and professor of learning development at the Yale University School of Medicine, told Reuters Health, “I think it’s a really important topic but an extraordinarily small sample. One doesn’t know how representative it is, because there was no control group.”

Shaywitz cites a need for more research into the experiences of dyslexic doctors, whom she says are far more numerous than most believe.

“They worry what others will think, because there is terrible misinformation that people who are dyslexic aren’t smart,” Shaywitz said. “But because they have difficulties reading, they have learned to be very careful.”

Charlton said his first-hand awareness of personal deficiencies has made him a compassionate physician. He also said he re-reads everything he writes, never failing to run a spell-check. Being careful doesn’t distinguish him among colleagues, however. “Doctors are very meticulous people,” he said. “You wouldn’t get to where we are if you were not.”

Radiologist Beryl Benacerraf is one of those meticulous dyslexic doctors. She’s also a Harvard Medical School professor who was an adult before her dyslexia was diagnosed. When Benacerraf entered medical school in the mid-1970s, she says it wasn’t due to academic achievement or test scores. She credits her father, immunologist Baruj Benacerraf, who later won a Nobel Prize, with pulling strings at Harvard. That help was all she needed.

“I never was accommodated, I had to swim in the waters with everybody else,” Benacerraf said. She developed “work-arounds,” relying on lectures more than textbooks. She now considers her dyslexia to be a gift. Because she was naturally good at pattern recognition, radiology was a perfect fit. (She gets to look at images rather than read words.)

“You develop the ability to be a big-picture person rather than a detail-oriented person,” Benacerraf said. “Dyslexics think much faster, and it’s a more creative way of thinking. I’m very proud of it.”

Charlton agrees. “A lot of us are coming to realize that there are significant downers, but there are certain things we tend to be pretty good at. There’s no reason to suppose that people with this kind of brain are not good at things.”