Many physicians unaware of legal requirements to care for patients with disabilities, study finds

Many physicians lack an understanding of their legal responsibilities when it comes to accommodating patients with disabilities at their practice, according to a new study.

Many doctors have either an incorrect or only superficial understanding of what they need to do to comply with laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to a study published Monday in Health Affairs.

But with an estimated one in five Americans living with a disability, medical practices need to be prepared to provide equitable care to these patients, said one of the study’s authors Nicole D. Agaronnik, a research assistant in the Mongan Institute Health Policy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Doctors receive little education in medical school or through continuing education about their responsibilities under the law and while many may think their practice rarely encounters patients with a disability, they probably see more people with disabilities—from those with hearing loss to being wheel-chair bound—than they think, Agaronnik said in an interview with Fierce Healthcare.

To help assess doctors understanding of those requirements to care for patients with disabilities, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 20 practicing physicians and asked them specific questions to measure their knowledge of the ADA.

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The research showed doctors lacked specific knowledge showing an understanding of the issues and barriers patients encounter, Agaronnik said.

“I know doctors already feel overwhelmed with all the responsibilities they have…but this is really important,” she said, adding that this can mean that doctors might not be aware of the ways in which they are caring for these patients that gives them less than equitable care.

“Medical practices should be prepared to accommodate patients with a disability ahead of time,” she said. They need to work with patients to determine, for instance, if a patient with a hearing disability prefers an American Sign Language interpreter.

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“We uncovered a lot of gaps, but we need to find a way to come up with more solutions. That will require collaboration with physicians to further know what are the barriers and challenges that prohibit providing equity of care to patients with disabilities,” she said.

The Affordable Care Act was set to update standards for accessible medical treatment within the ADA, which is enforced by the Justice Department. But the Trump administration stopped action on this change in 2017 as part of its sweeping effort to roll back regulations across the federal government.