Physicians and Dentists With Parkinson’s Disease:
The Condition, Its Occupational Impact and Disability

Introduction

Among the most devastating degenerative medical conditions is Parkinson’s disease, which currently affects 6.3 million people worldwide. While certain genetic conditions and environmental triggers may increase susceptibility to the disease, it is impossible to accurately predict who will develop it.

For healthcare professionals (physicians and dentists) diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, the disease can be career-ending as symptoms become more severe. This post will provide a brief overview of Parkinson’s disease; explain the limitations the condition may create and how this could impact a professional career; and provide a solid base of information for anyone struggling with the prospect or process of filing a disability insurance claim.

Background

Every year, there are approximately 60,000 new diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease, a condition affecting the nervous system, motor control, and brain chemistry. Recent improvements in treatments, including exciting therapies involving “reprogramming” skin cells to behave like stem cells, act as small steps toward a solution, but there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Sufferers often go undiagnosed for many years, and because of the progressive nature of the illness, it can cause a slow deterioration in ability to function normally in day-to-day life.

Disease Progression

After the initial diagnosis and into early stages of Parkinson’s disease, symptoms may seem manageable and typically include fatigue, tremors, joint pain, and anxiousness.

As the disorder progresses, it is common to experience stiffness, lack of coordination, and slower movement. Everyday tasks such as getting dressed, shaving, writing, and brushing teeth can become strained, and there is a high susceptibility to falls and related injuries due to disturbed sense of balance.

Once Parkinson’s disease reaches advanced stages, affected individuals sometimes lose the ability to walk, speak, and properly care for themselves. Since Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system, it can result in chemical changes within the brain, causing individuals to experience symptoms involving disruption of mental clarity, altered judgment, anxiety, or depression. In effort to control challenging symptoms, sufferers often go through the frustrating experience of experimenting with new medications, which can also produce unpleasant side effects.

Medical Professionals Diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease

It is understandably difficult to grasp the frustrating new limitations that go along with Parkinson’s disease, as symptoms sometimes come and go, progressing gradually over time. Doctors who have been diagnosed with the illness may be tempted to continue practicing as usual, despite their worsening symptoms. Unfortunately, the reality is that the slightest side effect, such as tremor or delayed reaction time could potentially have life-altering consequences for practitioners or their patients. Should a doctor be sued for medical malpractice post-diagnosis, a jury could be convinced that the doctor should not have been practicing due to the nature of the illness, regardless of whether or not it was a factor in the incident. The dichotomy between lifelong work ethic and patient safety is what makes Parkinson’s disease so devastating to physicians and dentists – considering the amount of time, energy, and money invested into a professional career, there is a reasonable hesitancy to take a step back.

When to File a Disability Insurance Claim

Early Parkinson’s disease symptoms mimic other more common ailments, often causing the condition to go undiagnosed for lengthy periods of time; furthering the problem, no one test is able to confirm a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Individuals undergoing the diagnosis process frequently experience a trial-and-error scenario, and symptom improvement with specific medications is often the litmus test for whether or not a person truly has the disease. These factors make it very difficult to determine when a disability insurance claim should be filed – when filed too soon, there may not be substantive proof of disability, but waiting too long could leave a practitioner exposed to liability.

A common mistake for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease is the attempt to modify work schedules and regular work duties with the progression of symptoms. Despite the fact that these measures are taken to avoid the risk of injury to the affected doctors or to their patients, the impact of this decision on future disability claims is substantial. A practitioner will typically perform fewer procedures, take on more management duties, and scale back hours over a period of time until working is no longer an option. The modification of one’s scope of practice and work hours can make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to collect future disability benefits, as insurance companies define a practitioner’s occupation (and ability to receive benefits) based on the work done at the time he or she becomes totally disabled. In short, this means that as one modifies his or her duties and hours, he or she is modifying both position and capability in the eyes of a disability insurance company to something less than that of a full time clinical practitioner. Keeping this in mind, it is best to explore the possibility of filing a total disability insurance claim as soon as possible after diagnosis, and it is prudent to speak with an attorney who is well-versed in filing disability claims.

Summary

Parkinson’s disease has had a personal impact on the lives of staff at Comitz | Beethe, and we are no strangers to how difficult it can be to deal with long-term medical issues. Perhaps the most important step in accepting and understanding Parkinson’s disease is taking the time to get the help you need. Seek the support of family, friends, and professionals to help you cope with the changes ahead.

Additionally, understand that knowledge is power. Parkinson’s disease can have a major impact on finances, relationships, work, time, and various other aspects of daily life. Educating yourself about the future and what to expect, including when to file a disability insurance claim, will help you to feel more prepared and able to face challenges as they arise.

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