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Commentary: Granting Medical Licensure, Honoring the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Protecting the Public: Can We Do All Three?

Altchuler, Steven I. PhD, MD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181a3db32

Physicians suffer from the same illnesses as others do, and some of these illnesses may limit their ability to safely practice medicine. Individuals with of some of these same illnesses may also suffer from denial, blinding them to their limitations. Data support that, while many of these physicians do voluntarily limit their practices or seek help, not all do. Schroeder and colleagues demonstrate in this issue that in their attempts to protect the public, state medical licensing boards may have asked questions prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They point out an ethical tension between nonmaleficence (protecting the public from harm) and individual autonomy (respecting the rights of each individual physician), amplified by the different approaches lawyers and physicians use to address conflicts. The classic legal approach is adversarial, whereas the classic medical approach is collaborative. Both are valid approaches, but neither works well in tandem with the other. The time has come for all sides of the licensure debate to acknowledge the legitimacy of the others’ concerns, to recognize the different approaches they each take, and to work together with others to find a common solution. The solution must allow boards to identify individuals with illnesses that impair their ability to practice safely and that also lead to denial of these very limitations. The solution must respect the autonomy of the individual licensee with a disability who can practice safely with an accommodation and who respects the need for that accommodation. The solution must protect the public.

Dr. Altchuler is assistant professor of psychiatry and chair, Division of Psychiatry and Psychology Specialty Programs, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Altchuler, Mayo Clinic, 200 First Street SW, Rochester MN 55905; telephone: (507) 284-4159; fax: (507) 284-4158; e-mail: (

Editor’s Note: This is a commentary on Schroeder R, Brazeau CMLR, Zackin F, et al. Do state medical board applications violate the Americans with Disabilities Act? Acad Med. 2009;84:776-781.

© 2009 Association of American Medical Colleges