Physician bias may prevent quality care for patients with disabilities


For Tara Lagu, MD, the realization that the health care system was broken for patients with disabilities came when a woman she had been treating seemed to keep ignoring Dr. Lagu’s request to see a urologist.

When Dr. Lagu asked the patient’s two attentive daughters about the delay, their response surprised her. The women said they couldn’t find a urologist who was willing to see a patient in a wheelchair.

A wheelchair sitting in the hallway of a hospital is shown. Ingram/thinkstock

Surprised and a bit doubtful, Dr. Lagu checked around. She found that, indeed, the only way to get her patient in to see the type of physician required was to send her by ambulance.

“It opened my eyes to how hard it is for patients with disabilities to navigate the health care system,” Dr. Lagu said.

Dr. Lagu, director of the Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research at Northwestern University in Chicago, decided to take a closer look at how her colleagues in medicine care for – or not, as the case proved – the roughly one in four American adults, and millions of children, with disabilities.

In a series of three focus groups, Dr. Lagu and colleagues identified a range of obstacles – including some physician attitudes – that prevent people with disabilities from getting adequate care.

Dr. Tara Lagu, director of the Center for Health Services and Outcomes Research at Northwestern University, Chicago

Dr. Tara Lagu

For the study, published in Health Affairs, the researchers interviewed 22 physicians in three groups: Nonrural primary care physicians, rural primary care physicians, and specialists in rheumatology, neurology, obstetrics/gynecology, orthopedics, and ophthalmology.

During the interviews, conducted in the fall of 2018, participants were asked about providing care for five specific types of disabilities: mobility, hearing, vision, mental health, and intellectual limitations.

Lack of experience, logistics often cited

Some physicians admitted that limited resources and training left them without the space and necessary knowledge to properly care for patients with disabilities. They felt they lacked the expertise or exposure to care for individuals with disabilities, nor did they have enough time and space to properly accommodate these patients, according to the researchers. Some said they struggled to coordinate care for individuals with disabilities and did not know which types of accessible equipment, such as adjustable tables and chair scales, were needed or how to use them.

Several physicians also noted that they are inadequately reimbursed for the special accommodations – including additional staff, equipment, and time – required to care for these patients. One primary care physician said he hired a sign-language interpreter for a patient but the bill for the services exceeded the amount insurance reimbursed. As a result, he said, he spent $30 of his own money per visit to see the patient.

Because of these limitations, some physicians in the focus groups said they try to turn away patients with disabilities. Both specialists and general practitioners said they had told patients with disabilities that they didn’t feel they could provide the care needed, and suggested they look elsewhere. A few were surprisingly – even upsettingly – honest, Dr. Lagu said, making statements such as: “I am not the doctor for you.”


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