Bias and Discrimination Toward Disabled Seeking Health Care

Author: Northwestern University
Published: 2022/10/03 - Peer-Reviewed: Yes
Contents: Summary - Main - Related Publications

Synopsis: People with disabilities report having a difficult time accessing health care and often find that doctors' offices refuse to accommodate them. Northwestern Medicine's study of national practices reports that physicians may be choosing to deny care to people with disabilities, and some use discretionary excuses to discharge them from their practice strategically. The study found that physicians who participated in these groups expressed bias toward people with disabilities, and a substantial number of participants reported that they make strategic choices to deny care to people with disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The law's purpose is to ensure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. The ADA gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided based on race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services.

Main Digest

I am not the doctor for you: Physician bias contributes to disparities in health care for people with disabilities (PWD).

Some physicians use discretionary excuses (e.g., "I am not taking new patients," "I do not take your insurance," or telling the patients they need specialized care and, therefore, "I am not the doctor for you") to discharge people with disabilities from their practice strategically. Some physicians also said ADA legislation "works against physicians."

More than 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), people with disabilities report difficulty accessing health care and often find that doctors' offices refuse to accommodate them. Now, a new Northwestern Medicine study of national practices reports that physicians may be choosing to deny care to people with disabilities, and some use discretionary excuses to discharge them from their practice strategically.

In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Massachusetts and Harvard Medical School, scientists from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine conducted focus groups with physicians drawn from a national database. The study found that physicians who participated in these groups expressed bias toward people with disabilities. A substantial number of participants reported that they make strategic choices to deny care to people with disabilities. This includes making statements such as "I am not taking new patients," "I do not take your insurance," or telling the patients they need specialized care and, therefore, "I am not the doctor for you."

The study was published Oct. 3 in the October issue of the journal Health Affairs.

"Our body of work suggests that physician bias and discriminatory attitudes may contribute to the health disparities that people with disabilities experience," said corresponding study author Tara Lagu, director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine's Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research at Feinberg and a professor of hospital medicine and medical social sciences. "We must address the attitudes and behavior perpetuating unequal access experienced by our most vulnerable patients."

Additionally, physicians in the study described a lack of knowledge about providing accommodations for people with disabilities. Some expressed adversarial attitudes toward the ADA, saying the legislation "works against physicians."

"The ADA is a key facilitator of autonomy and independence for people with disabilities," Lagu said. "The physicians' attitudes toward the ADA were upsetting and disappointing."

The ADA requires all medical practitioners to provide "full and equal access to their health care services and facilities" for people with disabilities. This includes building accessibility, such as creating spaces that are designed to be user-friendly for everyone, including people who use wheelchairs, canes, and mobility scooters; assisting with transferring patients from chair to examining table; and providing sign language interpreters and other accommodations. Prior studies have reported that people with disabilities have difficulty obtaining appointments with physicians and are known to receive less preventive care than their non-disabled counterparts.

"Meaningful improvements in access to high-quality care for people with disabilities will require a multipronged approach and should include changes to medical education, efforts to increase the presence of accessible equipment, and changes in our approach to physician reimbursement," said co-author Carol Haywood, research assistant professor of medical social sciences at Feinberg. "At Northwestern, we are working to lead change through research and advocacy and improvement efforts such as the Disability Advocacy Coalition in Medicine, patient safety and quality efforts at Northwestern Memorial Healthcare, and the NM Champion Network Disability Chapter."

This study follows work conducted by Lagu in 2012, in which she attempted to make an appointment for a (fictional) patient who used a wheelchair.

Of 256 surveyed practices in the 2012 study, 56 (22%) reported they could not accommodate the patient.

Of the rest, more than half planned to transfer the patient using methods considered to be unsafe.

More recently, Lagu and Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, published results of a national survey of physicians:

Funding for the new study, "I am not the doctor for you: Physician bias contributes to disparities in health care for PWD," was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (grant number 5R01HD091211) of the National Institutes of Health.

Attribution/Source(s):

This peer reviewed publication pertaining to our Disability Discrimination section was selected for circulation by the editors of Disabled World due to its likely interest to our disability community readers. Though the content may have been edited for style, clarity, or length, the article "Bias and Discrimination Toward Disabled Seeking Health Care" was originally written by Northwestern University, and submitted for publishing on 2022/10/03. Should you require further information or clarification, Northwestern University can be contacted at the northwestern.edu website. Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith.

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