An innovative new program is aiming to ensure that the next generation of doctors is far more prepared to treat the needs of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A half-dozen medical schools across the country are already part of the effort dubbed the National Curriculum Initiative in Developmental Medicine. Led by Dr. Priya Chandan at the University of Louisville, the group will ultimately expand to include 12 schools that will each design and implement their own curriculum covering communication and clinical skills.

“Having more providers trained in developmental medicine and taking care of this population across the lifespan will result in better access to care and also better quality of care,” Chandan said.

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Since the program began at the University of Louisville last year, for instance, all second-year medical students now meet with Special Olympics athletes to learn about their needs. A fourth-year elective rotation at a clinic treating patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities has drawn students whose specialties vary from general surgery to obstetrics/gynecology, Chandan said.

The four-year initiative is a partnership between Special Olympics International and the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry, which award each participating medical school a $25,000 grant.

In addition to the University of Louisville, the other five schools are the Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Colorado, The Ohio State University, Case Western Reserve University and Georgetown University. Six more will be selected.

Chandan said her interest arose because she has an older brother with Down syndrome and she saw the challenges he faced as he aged out of pediatric care.

“It’s always a difficult situation to go from a provider that really knows you and has seen you your whole life to have to transition to the adult system,” Chandan said. “The majority of the training historically has been in pediatrics, which was appropriate at the time, but this population is going into adulthood and also aging.”

David Ervin, chief executive for The Resource Exchange, a Colorado Springs, Colo. nonprofit service provider that is collaborating with the University of Colorado on the effort, called the initiative unprecedented.

“How many times do we see a young adult with a developmental disability and the doctor turns and faces the caregiver and starts asking the caregiver all the questions?” Ervin said.

He said barriers to quality health care for patients with disabilities have ranged from financial to functional, such as extremely short appointment times and lack of training for doctors.

Ervin noted that a primary care doctor treating an adult with Down syndrome should be aware of the higher prevalence of cardiovascular and Alzheimer’s diseases.

“If you don’t know that those are common conditions among folks with Down syndrome, you never know to ask,” he said.

In one project, Ervin said Colorado medical students are developing smoking cessation tools specifically for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The ultimate hope is we have people who happen to have disabilities who are just experiencing better health,” he said.