Press release

Study explores link between disability and academic performance

Published on 1 April 2022

University of Dundee-led research has shown that medical students who declare a disability are just as likely to complete the course successfully as those who do not.

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University of Dundee-led research has shown that medical students who declare a disability are just as likely to complete the course successfully as those who do not.

Disability in medicine is an important issue, yet little is known about the factors associated with declaration by students and doctors or the association of disability with academic performance.

The study, published today, is the first to ‘map’ disability in in the medical profession, using data from the UK Medical Education Database (UKMED). Linkage of declared disability status and other data has permitted more detailed investigation into disability than has previously been possible.

All medical students who started at a UK medical school between 2002 and 2018 – almost 136,000 individuals – were included in the study. The most commonly declared disability was defined as 'a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD'. Declaration of SLD increased almost threefold from 2002-2018. The study also found that:

  • First year medical students were less likely to declare SLD if they were younger, female, from a non-white ethnic background, or school-leavers.
  • Attendance at a fee-paying school predicted recording of SLD in first year, but socio-economic class, and parental higher education did not.
  • 43% of first year students who declared SLD during medical school had not sat the UKCAT Special Educational Needs (UKCATSEN) aptitude test which gives extra time for those with special educational needs. This discrepancy raises the possibility of under-identification of SLD by secondary schools/further education colleges.
  • 28% of registrants who declared SLD as medical students did not declare it at GMC registration. The transition from medical student to junior doctor marks a critical career point, and the uncertainty associated with the change in role may precipitate different declaring behaviour.

Despite small differences in academic performance outcomes, medical students who declare SLD at any point are just as likely to complete the course successfully as those who do not. Those who declared SLD from first year were less likely to have problems with academic progression than those who declared it subsequently (often in response to academic failure), raising the possibility that early identification of SLD by medical schools might ensure a smoother path to graduation.

Dr Michael Murphy, Director of Admissions at Dundee’s School of Medicine, said, “There may be a misconception among medical students that declaring a disability will somehow reduce your chances of graduating as a doctor. Our study findings should reassure people that this is not the case.

“The increasing numbers who declare disability early in the course suggests that medical students are less afraid to do so and understand the value of receiving support and adjustment.

“Some groups are less likely to declare disability than others, and medical schools should work together to see how these students can be made to feel more comfortable about declaring. Efforts should be made to ensure that clear information is provided about the support provided for those who declare disability - before, during and after medical school.”

The study was led by Dr Murphy in conjunction with his colleagues Professor John Dowell (ScotGEM, Universities of Dundee and St Andrews) and Dr Daniel Smith (General Medical Council). The period covered by the study included the enactment of the 2010 Equality Act, suggesting that students may have become more comfortable reporting a disability over this time.

As the transitions, from applicant to medical student, and from medical student to foundation doctor, were associated with substantial differences in SLD declaration, the authors believe that disability declaration may depend on context for some individuals.

Professor Dame Jane Dacre, Chair of the UKMED Advisory Board, said, “It is reassuring to see that UKMED data has found that declaring a specific learning disability does not make it any less likely that a student will graduate as a doctor. This is a powerful message, and should help to ensure that medical students and applicants are aware of the importance of declaring disabilities to ensure they are able to access appropriate support.

“The aim of the UKMED collaboration is to inform the development of medical education and training, We hope that this is the first of many studies that can help medical and postgraduate schools understand and improve the experiences of students with disabilities.”

The study, ‘Factors associated with declaration of disability in medical students and junior doctors, and the association of declared disability with academic performance’ is published today in the journal BMJ Open.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768