Feature: The Paralympics demonstrate the importance of Rehabilitation Medicine

By Dr. Adam Kassam, Chief Resident, Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

“Greatness is rare.”  This is the unofficial slogan of the Canadian Paralympic Team that recently sent a record number 55 athletes to compete in the Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The delegation included 25 first-time Paralympians and 19 previous medal winners who collectively participated in all of the sports on offer: para alpine skiing, para ice hockey, para snowboard, para nordic (cross-country and biathalon) and para wheelchair curling.

What makes the Paralympics so special is the incredibly moving stories of the athletes who compete. Take, for example, London’s own Mark Ideson. In 2007, he was involved in a helicopter crash where he sustained polytraumatic injuries with resulting incomplete quadriplegia.  He spent six weeks in acute care and four more months at Parkwood Hospital in the spinal cord rehabilitation program. Mr. Ideson, while adjusting to his new life, recognized that sport would be a way of channeling his energy and took up wheelchair curling in 2010. Incredibly, he was part of the the 2014 Paralympic team that won gold in Sochi. Now considered an expert veteran, he was chosen as skip to lead the Canadian team in Pyeongchang.

Stories like Mr. Ideson’s are abundant in the Paralympics, and demonstrate the incredible persistence, determination and resilience of those with disabilities. According to the United Nations, nearly 10 per cent of the world’s population, or 650 million people, live with a disability, making them the world’s largest minority group. Given this prevalence, physicians and other health care providers will inevitably interact with and treat this patient population.

The delivery of quality health care to those with disabilities, including our Paralympians, depends on a clear understanding of the value of a multidisciplinary team approach. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R) doctors, also known as physiatrists, use their expertise in rehabilitation and disability medicine to coordinate the diverse skill set of allied health professionals, which has an incredibly positive impact on the quality of life of our patients. This includes leveraging the expertise of physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, social workers and nurses to focus on maximizing the functional quality of life of those we serve.

As our society continues to age alongside advancements in medical research, technology and treatments, our health care system will be tasked with caring for a growing number of patients with disabilities. In order for us to meet these challenges, our national leaders in medical education should continue to prioritize the creation of opportunities for medical students, residents and staff physicians to learn about the importance of rehabilitation in the context of treating the patient as an individual.

The model developed here at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry is an excellent example. Medical students are exposed to the field of rehabilitation medicine during their clinical methods curriculum, which is led by a number of physiatry staff including Dr. Michael Payne. Resident physicians from departments including Family Medicine, Neurology and Orthopaedics have been able to spend elective time with physiatrists. This initiative has been terrific for exposure and learning, and very much a product of the hard work of the physiatry group, including our former Program director, Dr. Keith Sequeira. Moreover, the strength of collaboration has been perfected by Dr. Tom Miller and his colleagues in the departments of Plastic and Orthopaedic surgery. Their development of the Peripheral Nerve Clinic is the first of its kind in Canada and has quickly become a world leader.

Ultimately, the Paralympic Games have inspired us to overcome the obstacles we face in our daily lives. Our athletes have become role models for our friends, families and communities. Let us take this time to congratulate our Canadian Paralympic team for representing our country in such magnificent fashion, and commit to them and others with disabilities, to work together to create a better health care system for all.

Follow Dr. Kassam on Twitter: @AdamKassamMD