Editor’s Corner: 6 ways to improve care for learning-disabled patients

Editor's corner
Joanne Finnegan
Joanne Finnegan

All kinds of patients can end up in a doctor’s waiting room. So it’s not unusual to read about doctors who need training on how to better understand and treat numerous groups of patients: obese patients, LGBT patients, mental health patients, just to name a few.

But until recently, there hasn’t been much discussion about healthcare’s struggle to meet the needs of learning-disabled patients.

Indeed, research shows that this vulnerable patient population is more likely to suffer from preventable poor health and is more likely to die before the age of 50. 

Despite the fact that 7 to 8 million children and adults in the U.S. have an intellectual disability--about 3 percent of the population--many encounter challenges at doctors’ offices, says Ann Costello, executive director of the Golisano Foundation, a group that is working to change that, in a piece for The Huffington Post.

For example, she says it’s not unusual for patients to hear comments, such as “I think you could be better treated by a different doctor” or “I’m sorry, but we just don’t know how to treat you here.”

“This is what people with intellectual disabilities and their families often hear at the doctor’s office when they need health services, even basic healthcare needs like a routine physical,” says Costello.

Part of the problem is that many doctors aren’t trained to treat patients with intellectual disabilities.

Now the Golisano Foundation’s founder, businessman and philanthropist Tom Golisano, who has donated millions of dollars to the Special Olympics, has created the Golisano Health Leadership Awards. Special Olympics will present the awards to recognize people and organizations around the globe that have made significant progress in increasing access to healthcare for this population and those who have been a catalyst for change.

Golisano’s son, who has a developmental disability, inspired him to create the foundation back in 1985.

So what can doctors to offer compassionate, effective healthcare to those with intellectual disabilities? Here’s some suggestions:

  • Learn more about intellectual disabilities to better understand patients’ behaviors. Some studies have suggested better education begin in medical schools and training programs.
  • Make efforts to communicate with patients who have special needs. Parents, caregivers and guardians can help medical professionals know how to best to communicate with a patient.
  • Be cautious not to attribute symptoms to a patient’s intellectual disability. For instance, don’t prescribe medication for a behavior instead of looking for underlying problems that may cause pain or discomfort.
  • Build a patient’s trust. A regular primary care provider can increase a patient’s trust and create better communication.
  • Adapt your approach to individual patients. People with intellectual impairments vary greatly in their functioning and capacity to understand and communicate their needs. As you should with all patients, be sure your patient understands what you have said by asking him or her to repeat back any instructions.
  • Consider scheduling additional time during appointments. Since some procedures can make a patient nervous or frightened, make sure your patients are prepared for and comfortable during medical exams and treatment.

By making an effort, doctors can help ensure people with intellectual disabilities receive the care they deserve—Joanne (@PracticeMgt)