Are some doctors shunning patients with disabilities?

By Ernie Williamson

The Bulletin


I am a paraplegic, so the recent front-page headline in the New York Times grabbed me.

“These Doctors Admit They Don’t Want Patients with Disabilities,” the headline blared.


I have been wheelchair-bound for 10 years and have seen more than my share of doctors - some good and some not so good - but I have never felt a doctor didn’t want me as a patient.


But that doesn’t mean I don’t have minor complaints about my doctor visits. I do, but more on that after telling you about the story in the Times.


Dr. Lisa Lezzoni, a professor of medicine at Harvard, had heard for years that people with disabilities felt doctors didn’t treat them with respect. What patients told her was no surprise, given her own experiences with multiple sclerosis and using a wheelchair.


She decided it was time to investigate. She proposed asking physicians what they really thought when a disabled patient showed up.


The result was a study that gathered doctors into focus groups on video conferences. The doctors were granted anonymity and divided into three groups of 8 to 10 doctors.


With Dr. Lezzoni moderating, the doctors were guarded at first, but as the sessions wore on, they began speaking more frankly. According to the Times, the doctors in the Zoom conferences could not see that Dr. Lezzoni was in a wheelchair.


The doctors seemed particularly focused on people in wheelchairs.


Some doctors said their office scales could not accommodate wheelchairs, so they had told patients to go to a supermarket, a grain elevator or a zoo to be weighed. They would tell new patients the practice was closed.


Some doctors explained why they could be so eager to get rid of disabled patients, focusing on the shrinking amount of time doctors are allotted to spend with individual patients.


“Seeing patients at a 15-minute clip is absolutely ridiculous,” one doctor said. “To have someone say we are still going to see those patients with mild to moderate disabilities in those time frames is just unacceptable to me.”


Another doctor said disabled patients took too much time and called them “a disruption to clinic flow.”


The doctors also raised the issue of communication difficulties. One doctor said he had hired a sign language interpreter for a deaf patient, a decision which cost so much that he lost $30 each time that patient visited.


The findings stunned one of the study’s authors.


“It was shocking, I almost couldn’t believe it,” said Dr. Tara Lagu, professor of medicine and medical social science at Northwestern.


To the best of my knowledge, I have never been refused an appointment with a doctor and have been treated with respect.


My main complaints deal with facilities and equipment.


Exam rooms tend to be small, and I frequently have trouble maneuvering my wheelchair into the proper position.


I dread when a doctor asks me to get up on exam tables. Many exam tables are too high and can’t be lowered. I risk falling while climbing onto some of them.


Like some people in the study, I can’t stand up to be weighed in the doctor’s office. I solve the problem by weighing myself at home regularly so I can tell the doctor my weight. I use my walker to step up on a scale that isn’t very high.


And I do this next to my bed, so I have a soft landing if I fall.


I am fortunate that many of my doctor visits are at TIRR Memorial Hermann, a hospital and outpatient clinic that specializes in treating a wide range of disabilities.


They are accustomed to people like me.


The rooms are spacious. The exam tables can be raised and lowered, and the scales can weigh me while in the wheelchair.


I have never been told to go to the zoo to be weighed.


(Contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)