"A lot of medical students, their biggest fear is failing at being seen to be a functional human": disclosure and help-seeking decisions by medical students with health problems

BMC Med Educ. 2021 Dec 5;21(1):599. doi: 10.1186/s12909-021-03032-9.


Background: Although medical students have a duty to seek advice for their health conditions, they tend to avoid disclosure and help-seeking behaviours, therefore potentially posing a risk to themselves and their patients. The literature regarding their decisions to seek help or disclose health conditions is limited. The study's purpose was to explore the factors that determine disclosure and help-seeking decision processes by medical students who have health conditions with or without disability.

Methods: We recruited by purposive sampling and conducted in-depth semi-structured interviews with 11 male and female medical students from a UK medical school, who had physical or mental health disorders. Thematic analysis was used to identify themes. A mix of inductive and deductive techniques was used while using an organising framework proposed by Llewellyn-Thomas (1995).

Results: The impact of individuals' features, such as personality traits on medical students' disclosure and help-seeking decisions were identified. Different aspects of the condition, such as its type and severity were found to influence these decisions. Participants made an evaluation of the potential receiver of a disclosure, consisting of factors such as the receiver's characteristics and attitudes. The culture of the medical environment, such as role models, had a major impact on their decisions. Finally, systemic factors, such as the lack of clarity of policies influenced students' decisions.

Conclusion: Medical students' disclosure and help-seeking decision processes are influenced by risk-benefit evaluations and factors in interlinked spheres of their lives. They tend to avoid or postpone disclosure and seeking help, especially when the university is involved, due to a perceived risk to their future. Future research should examine the role of personality traits and the medical culture. Medical schools should encourage earlier help-seeking and disclosure behaviours by clarifying procedures and building trust via online and confidential platforms; interpersonal channels and normalisation processes within the medical education and the profession as a whole.

Keywords: Disabilities; Disclosure; Health problems; Help-seeking; Medical students.

MeSH terms

  • Disclosure
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Students, Medical*
  • Universities