How Can We Make American Healthcare Work Better for the Disabled Population?
Stephanie, a 47-year-old woman, suffers from hemiplegic migraine, a rare migraine sub-type which creates symptoms similar to a stroke. Because attacks limit her ability to move the right side of her body, Stephanie voluntarily gave up driving out of fear of losing control and causing an accident. This created a new problem, however — how to get to and from her frequent doctor and therapy appointments.
Thousands of other people with disabilities like Stephanie face barriers to the healthcare they need to manage their conditions and enjoy a decent quality of life. Some of these barriers stem from lack of access to transportation, while others stem from financial considerations such as the high cost of health insurance and prescription medications.
Lack of healthcare access not only takes a toll in terms of human suffering, but also creates a higher economic price. Lack of access to preventative care leads to the worsening of symptoms among the disabled population. As a society, we must address the difficult issue of lack of healthcare access among disabled populations in America.
Factors Impacting Healthcare Access
Many of the factors impacting healthcare access stem from physical barriers. While the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires hospitals to provide handicapped-accessible equipment, many emergency centers still lack these devices, especially in rural areas. In addition, few private physicians can afford to supply their practices with this equipment.
Many mammogram machines, for example, do not adjust nearly enough to accommodate women in wheelchairs, leading many disabled women to skip this important health screening. In addition, getting from wheelchair to gynecological bed replete with stirrups poses an additional hurdle, causing many disabled women to miss out on an annual pap smear, an otherwise simple cervical cancer screening.
Transportation poses an additional hurdle to many. People with visual impairments report the greatest difficulty in obtaining care. While those living in major metro areas may have easy access to public transportation, rural areas boast few such amenities. In addition, medical centers in rural areas remain few and far between, causing many disabled individuals to have to find someone with an extra hour or more in their day just to run them to the doctor.
Financial factors also impact access to healthcare for disabled individuals. Notably, the Trump administration along with Republicans in Congress recently repealed the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act, which means healthy individuals no longer face a tax penalty for failing to carry health insurance.
This drives the cost up tremendously for people who are self-employed and purchase their health insurance through the marketplace. It pushes the price out of reach for disabled individuals who need care the most, but may be self-employed and working from home due to physical constraints that bar them from pursuing other work.
Healing the System
Making access to healthcare for the disabled population easier involves somewhat of an overhaul of the current US healthcare system. Yet, some simple changes could bring more relief to people in need.
For example, health insurance companies can expand access to alternative therapies such as massage therapy, water therapy and chiropractic care. Research suggests providing alternative therapies may work as effectively or even more effectively than the traditional pill-only treatment protocols we mostly rely on now. Indeed, investing in alternative therapies may prove more cost-effective in the long term than a pricey pill habit in many instances.
Doctors and other health professionals often lack specialized training in dealing with disabled patients. All healthcare professionals should undergo regular training on techniques to make care more inclusive for those with disabilities. Additionally, all healthcare office renovations should take place with accessibility to all at the forefront.
To further bolster communication with disabled patients, healthcare practitioners should provide educational materials in Braille for their visually-impaired patients. Those with patients who are hard of hearing do well to have a sign language interpreter on call to ensure understanding of important matters such as how often to take prescribed medication.
On a national level, because young people with disabilities in particular often lack health insurance coverage, lawmakers in Washington should work to increase, not decrease, access to health insurance for all. Providing an affordable public option not only would save lives, it would also save money in the long run.
Currently individuals lacking health insurance often put off necessary trips to the doctor for preventative care, and by the time they become eligible for Medicare at age 65, their conditions have worsened in severity to the point where more expensive interventions become necessary. If you believe our corrupt healthcare system isn’t carefully designed this way, I’d urge you to think again.
Individuals concerned with expanding health insurance access to all people can also contact their elected officials and urge them to support the Expanded and Improved Medicare-for-All Act. In addition to ensuring all Americans possess healthcare coverage, this legislation would enable lawmakers to negotiate for far lower prices for pharmaceuticals the way other developed nations do and would also cover vision and dental care excluded by many private health insurance plans.
Changes at Home and in the Community
While sweeping changes to our current healthcare system will take time to implement, those who know and love someone with a disability can help them access care.
Individual employers can expand paid family leave policies to allow more time for employees to take loved ones with disabilities to medical appointments. In addition, employers can implement policies such as telecommuting opportunities, which allow individuals with disabilities that prevent them from driving the ability to earn a living.
Those who care for someone with a disability can act as advocates during medical appointments. They can assist those with disabilities in understanding their physician’s instructions and request accommodations during medical exams intended to increase patient comfort. They can also set reminders for their loved ones to take needed medications at the correct time.
Solving the difficult problem of increasing healthcare access for all, including those living with disabilities, will take time and considerable change. However, if we are to truly consider ourselves a just and equitable society, everyone should have the inalienable right to receive the healthcare they need to live their best lives.