What George Mason Experts Are Saying about … Barriers to Health Care for People with Disabilities

Posted: May 4, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lori Jennings

Sue Palsbo
Sue Palsbo

Today, 54 million people with disabilities live in the United States, making it the single largest minority group – yet also one of the most underrepresented, particularly in terms of health care.

According to Sue Palsbo, research professor in Mason’s Center for Chronic Illness and Disability in the College of Nursing and Health Science, children and adults with disabilities face constant barriers to health care and tend to be overlooked not only by the federal government, but also by most health plans and clinics.

This vulnerable population is ignored, she notes, despite that they:

  • Are far less likely to receive wellness screenings
  • Are far less likely to have less access to specialists and follow-up care
  • Have a greater likelihood of being obese and heavy smokers
  • Have a lesser likelihood of being counseled to engage in an exercise program, or to receive Pap smears, mammograms or smoking queries from care providers

While those with different ethnic or racial backgrounds are serviced through organizations such as the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, no such measures have been created to represent people with disabilities.

“It’s not just the federal government,” says Palsbo. “This population is ignored by most health plans and clinics. The U.S. health system is geared toward the short-term needs of well people. It’s just starting to move toward providing care over the long term for people with asthma, diabetes or congestive heart failure. It’s not yet equipped to provide seamless care for people with disabilities.”

To address this issue, Palsbo recently published a paper with June Isaacson Kailes of the Western University of Health Sciences in Disability Studies Quarterly (spring 2006, vol. 26, no. 2). The paper suggested specific ways to reorganize existing resources to make health systems and clinics “disability competent.” These include tracking quality-of-life outcomes as well as satisfaction, clinical, utilization and financial outcomes; capturing data on services such as mental health or pharmacy expenditures; and making sure programs are grounded in the infrastructure of the community they are serving.

Palsbo has more than 20 years of experience applying rigorous research methods to decision making by healthcare organizations. She is currently working with several disability care coordination organizations around the country and with federal agencies to develop comparable quality measures of care for adults with disabilities.

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