Intellectual & developmental disability: A need for educated healthcare clinicians

Although our understanding of intellectual disability has improved in recent years, it is still challenging to ensure that a developmental disabilities program gets the resources and personnel it requires. Educated healthcare practitioners are not only medically qualified, but they also understand the frequent complex needs of people with intellectual and developmental impairments.

What is an educated healthcare clinician?

An educated healthcare clinician is any medical professional, including physicians, nurses, therapists and even dentists, who have formal education in working with and supporting patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It may include professionals who work with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on a daily basis in specialist hospitals, schools, and residential facilities, as well as more generalized practitioners who may encounter patients with intellectual disabilities while providing their regular services to the public.

Why should every developmental disabilities program have access to educated healthcare clinicians?

Working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities presents particular challenges in any context. For example, communication problems can make it hard for them to express when something is wrong, or for you to explain how you are trying to help them. This is as true for healthcare clinicians as it is for teachers and support workers. One part of intellectual disabilities’ education may be learning to adapt to different forms of communication.

Many people with intellectual disabilities will also have comorbid conditions that increase their medical needs. Autism and epilepsy are both more common in people with intellectual disabilities. There may be physical issues such as heart or vision problems, or there may be mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety. Any healthcare clinician working with these patients needs to understand how these conditions may intersect, and how that can affect treatment and management of symptoms. Again, this is something that may require specific education.

From planning appropriate treatments to knowing when to make referrals to specialists, a clinician cannot offer the kind of specific and individualized care that someone with intellectual disabilities requires unless they have an understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities more generally.

How does someone become an educated healthcare clinician?

As public awareness of intellectual and developmental impairments has grown, and community-based care has taken precedence over institutionalization, it has been clear that healthcare providers need to increase their understanding of how to handle people with intellectual disabilities.

Many professional bodies, such as the American Nurses Association or the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry, have taken steps to formulate guidance on how to provide for patients with intellectual disabilities, and to help schools produce curricula for clinicians, so they can be educated on intellectual disability-related healthcare. It is hoped this will address the biases and lack of familiarity that can make clinicians reluctant or unable to provide care to those with intellectual disabilities.

There may still be gaps in knowledge among many clinicians as to how to provide the best care for those with intellectual disabilities, but with appropriate education, these gaps can be narrowed. The complex needs in a developmental disabilities program can only be met if the professionals within it have a proper understanding of the conditions and any comorbidities.

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