People with disabilities have unmet medical needs and poorer overall health throughout their lives, according to new research.
The study was conducted by a team of policy researchers who said the findings suggest people with disabilities should be recognized as a health disparity group so more attention can be directed to improving their quality of life.
“Many of the health concerns of people with disabilities, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity, are largely preventive and unrelated to the disability,” Gloria Krahn, PhD, MPH, of Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in Corevallis, said in a news release. Krahn, the Barbara E. Knudson Endowed Chair in Family Policy and a public health professor at OSU, is lead author on a new paper advocating the recognition.
“There’s no overt reason, based on the diagnosed condition, that people with disabilities should have higher rates of these diseases,” she said in the release. “There may always be some disparity in health because of a person’s disability, but people can have disabilities and also be healthy.”
The researchers’ findings were published Feb. 17 on the website of the American Journal of Public Health. Co-authors are Deborah Klein Walker, PhD, of Abt Associates and Rosaly Correa-de-Araujo, MD, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health. The article was based on research conducted primarily while Krahn was working at the CDC.
People with significant disabilities — defined federally as functional limitations of movement, vision, hearing or problem-solving — make-up about 12% of the U.S. population. Reducing the incidence of preventable diseases in this population could lead to improved quality of life and reductions in healthcare costs, Krahn said in the release.
Race and ethnicity are used to define health disparity populations by state and federal governments. Disability is not recognized as a disparity population, even though people with disabilities are, on average, in poorer health than the rest of the population. Adults with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to report skipping or delaying healthcare because of costs, and they have higher rates of chronic disease than the general population, for example.
Establishing disability as a health disparity group is a way of bringing attention to a group that clearly has unmet needs, Krahn said.
The researchers suggest that recognizing people with disabilities as a health disparity population could lead to:
• Improved access to healthcare and human services for the disabled;
• Increased data on the disabled population, aiding in policy-making;
• Added training for healthcare providers, strengthening the workforce and improving care for the disabled;
• Improved public health programs that are designed to be inclusive of people with disabilities;
• Enhanced emergency-preparedness; people with disabilities can be especially vulnerable in emergency or disaster situations.
A focus on the health disparity could lead to creation of health promotion materials that are accessible to people with disabilities; development of weight-loss or smoking cessation programs to serve the disabled; and emergency evacuation and shelter training for people with disabilities, according to Krahn.
“To say that disability is a health disparity will mark a significant shift in approach toward healthcare of people with disabilities,” Krahn said in the release. “It would influence public health practice, research and policy.”