More Than 80% of Doctors Hold Biased Views on Patients With Disabilities, New Study Reveals

One would think that doctors would be among the most caring and supporting of patients with disabilities, but a new study from Health Affairs has revealed that more than 80% of doctors harbor at least somewhat negative attitudes towards the quality of life people with disabilities are able to achieve.

In the study, researchers from a number of health centers including Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and Anschutz Medical Campus at the University of Colorado surveyed 714 practicing U.S. physicians nationwide asking about their care and treatment of individuals with disabilities.

Of the physicians polled, “82.4% reported that people with significant disability have worse quality of life than non-disabled people.” Even more disturbing, “only 40.7% of physicians were very confident about their ability to provide the same quality of care to patients with disability,” and “just 56.5% strongly agreed that they welcomed patients with disability into their practices.” On top of this, only 18.1% of those same physicians “strongly agreed that the health care system often treats [disabled] patients unfairly.”

Reporter Rebecca Sohn from the medical news site Stat interviewed the study’s lead author, Lisa Iezzoni, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, about the study. Iezzoni was surprised that so many doctors not only held such biased views but were also willing to admit their true feelings towards patients with disabilities. 

“Iezzoni, who has multiple sclerosis and has studied the health care experiences and outcomes of people with disabilities for more than two decades, said she assumed doctors would be more hesitant to admit they hold these views,” Sohn wrote.

According to Sohn, the 714 doctors involved in the study came from a range of specialties including family medicine, internal medicine, rheumatology, neurology, ophthalmology, orthopedic surgery and obstetrics-gynecology. 

“Of the survey respondents, 62% were male and 38% were female,” she said. “The majority, 65%, were white, 17% were Asian, 7% Hispanic, 6% Black, 0.2% Native American, 0.9% Pacific Islander, and 4.5% were classified as other. Roughly 1 in 3 doctors reported that they or a family member has a significant disability.”

“While there are disabilities that could worsen a person’s quality of life, previous research has shown that people with disabilities overall rate their quality of life as the same or better than those without a disability,” Iezzoni told Sohn. That said, Sohn noted that the study indicated “disabled people face persistent health disparities, including in-screening and preventative services, reproductive and pregnancy care and communication with clinicians.”

Even while government bodies such as the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights may issue bulletins and advise physicians to be inclusive in their treatment of individuals with disabilities, Sohn said that unlike gender and race, proper methods for treating people with disabilities are rarely addressed in medical school curriculum and are something most physicians don’t think about in their day-to-day practice — perhaps explaining why patients with disabilities continue to be so unhappy with the quality of medical care they typically receive.

“That’s why these findings just hit home,” Iezzoni said. “Our findings, unfortunately, kind of support the worst fears of people with disabilities.”


D.I. Fast Facts

48.9 million

Estimated number of people in the United States who have a disability.
National Service Inclusion Project


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