Why disabled patients often have a hard time getting care

You might think the last place a person with a disability would suffer discrimination is in a medical setting. Unfortunately, as people with virtually any kind of disability will attest, that’s not true.

A study recently published in the journal Health Affairs presents a candid look at what doctors say about treating disabled patients when they’re able to speak their minds anonymously. In focus groups led by a Harvard Medical School professor, specialists and primary care physicians detailed the problems they encounter when asked to treat disabled patients and the lengths some go to in order to avoid it.

Disabled patients often have to deal with indignities and lies

Patients who use wheelchairs are among the most difficult to accommodate – even to be weighed. Some doctors talked about sending patients to grocery stores, cattle processing plants, grain elevators and zoos to be weighed. 

Doctors are aware that it’s illegal to refuse to see a patient because they’re disabled, so they find other excuses. Some admitted to telling patients seeking an appointment that they were no longer in practice.

Time, space and equipment are issues

Some doctors said they didn’t have the time necessary to properly deal with a patient’s disability nor the space or equipment to accommodate them. Disabilities affecting mobility weren’t the only ones raised. One doctor said he had to hire a sign language interpreter every time a particular patient came in, which cut into his income.

Patients confirm what the doctors said. One man said he’s had doctors say, “I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe you should go elsewhere.” Patients who do get in to see doctors are afraid to assert their rights for fear of being labeled “difficult.”

It’s hard to quantify disparities in treatment

Just how much disabled patients suffer from inadequate treatment and poor outcomes is difficult to gauge because disability isn’t specifically a category in health care tracking systems. One of the study’s authors says, “I know for sure that we have to change the culture of medicine” when it comes to dealing with a disability.

Anyone can become disabled, temporarily or permanently, at any point in their lives. That certainly shouldn’t affect the care they receive at a time they may need it the most. If you or a loved one has suffered harm because of medical negligence, find out what your options are for seeking justice and compensation.