Barriers to Accessible Healthcare and Ways to Overcome Them

Published April 15, 2021

Access to healthcare is vital for all, and certainly no less so for persons with a disability. However, a number of barriers exist that make it difficult for many people with disabilities to access much-needed medical care services. When we recognize these health gaps and barriers, we can find ways to successfully overcome them.

Common limitations in healthcare that cause accessibility barriers

Physical limitations

The equipment and physical space of healthcare settings may not be optimized for equal access.

  • Exam tables and scales are often not adjustable for height, which makes it hard to transfer from a wheelchair to the table or scale.
  • X-rays, CT scans, or mammography equipment may not be designed for accessibility.
  • Dental chairs may not be wheelchair accessible.
  • Doorways and staircases in medical office buildings may not be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair user.

Attitudinal and financial limitations

Attitudes and biases may get in the way of equal access to quality healthcare.

  • Healthcare providers may sometimes discount an individual’s need for preventive care, assuming their disability to be the motivation behind their visit.
  • If the disability is not outwardly visible, the provider may fail to take it seriously enough.
  • In case of a rare disability, the healthcare provider may not have proper awareness about the patient’s unique needs.
  • The continued need for medical treatment, equipment, or medications for a person with a disability can create significant costs that may not always be adequately covered by health insurance.
  • Persons with a disability who are unable to be gainfully employed, or are receiving disability coverage or benefits, may face financial limitations to cover their medical costs.

Ways to overcome these limitations

To begin with, it is important to recognize that these limitations and barriers exist – because only then the focus can shift towards finding solutions. Some of the key steps to improve healthcare accessibility include:

  • Make sure that your medical office building is in compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. For example, the doorways should be sufficiently wide to allow for wheelchair access, the elevators and ramps should be designed for accessibility, and public spaces, amenities, and restrooms should be accessible.
  • Medical equipment, such as x-ray and other diagnostic machines, exam tables, and scales should be height-adjustable and accessible.
  • The facility should have policies in place that allow patients with service animals to visit medical exam rooms, waiting rooms, and other non-sterile areas. The law permits the building staff to ask what function the service animal performs, but they cannot ask for any documentation or ID.
  • When a person with a disability requires alternative communication means, the medical office building should be able to provide for written communication or a sign language interpreter.
  • All online materials and digital patient portals should be in conformance with current web accessibility guidelines.
  • The medical staff should receive periodic training and updates on how to interact and engage with patients with disability. The training content should cover subjects, such as disability culture, respectful communication, need for preventive care, and reproductive and sexual healthcare.
  • The healthcare facility should engage with various disability organizations to gain more insights into rare disability conditions. Examples of such organizations and groups include Muscular Dystrophy Association, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Post-Polio Health International, and United Spinal Association.
  • The medical office should recognize that in some cases a person with a disability may not be in a financial position to pay for a healthcare service, even if they may have medical coverage. The staff should be trained to assist and inform patients about all their preventive and treatment care options, and the cost in each case.

These simple steps can substantially improve quality healthcare access for all. Healthcare accessibility is critical to maintaining and promoting health, preventing and managing illness, and achieving the goal of health equity for all individuals.


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