The Mighty Logo

Study Finds Many Doctors Have Negative Beliefs About Disability

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

While more than 62 million Americans have disabilities, the medical community appears to have widespread general ignorance, negative perception and even bias against those with disabilities, according to a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs, reported more than 82% of American physicians said they believe patients with significant disabilities have a worse quality of life than those without disabilities. Of those disabled patients, however, a majority (54%) self-reported having an “excellent or good quality of life.”

Lead study author Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told CNN that if physicians assume a patient has a poor quality of life, that can limit treatment options provided to them and ultimately be devastating to their quality of care.

“Potentially biased views among physicians could contribute to persistent health care disparities affecting people with disability,” the study authors wrote. According to the researchers of the study, the COVID-19 pandemic has only further highlighted disparities and inequity in medical care for people with disabilities.

Iezzoni and her team identified other myths and gaps in how doctors treat people with disabilities. For example, many physicians made the assumption that disabled patients are not sexually active. Doctors therefore did not provide disabled patients with adequate information about contraception, sexually transmitted infection, or proper testing for sexually associated infections or cancers.

The study also found that many surgeons, under a false assumption that disabled people don’t care about physical appearance, presume disabled women with a breast cancer diagnosis prefer mastectomies to breast-conserving surgery.

“I think that if physicians simply recognize they may have these biases, they need to just ask what their patients’ preferences are and what their patients’ views are — and not make assumptions,” Iezzoni, a wheelchair user, told CNN. “Virtually everybody I know with a disability thinks that their doctors just don’t understand what their lives are like.”

The study also indicated a need for improvements, because the study exposed “a long-standing aspects of U.S. health care that severely disadvantages people with disability.” According to former medical student and Mighty contributor, Alicia Pinkerton, this could start with better training and making medical school more accessible to disabled doctors.

“The study of medicine is currently often not accessible to the disabled community,” Pinkerton wrote, adding:

Due to this lack of inclusion, physicians are often unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge their own bias when treating disabled patients. The disabled community has no voice. Until this changes, too many people in the disabled community will suffer at the hands of those who took an oath to care for them.

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home