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The Making of Medicine

Improving Health Outcomes for People With Disabilities

Our Rupa S. Valdez, PhD, has teamed up with Johns Hopkins' Bonnielin K. Swenor, PhD, MPH, to develop a plan to improve the health and lives of the more than 27% of Americans living with some form of disability.

Professor Valdez, of the School of Medicine's Department of Public Health Sciences, and her colleague outline the plan in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. They are calling on the National Institutes of Health – and America as a whole – to take steps to assess existing needs and identify ways to improve health outcomes.

One key action: The researchers are asking the NIH, and agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to designate people with disabilities as an official health disparity population. This designation would catalyze much-needed research to help us better understand the scale and nature of the challenges faced by people with disabilities, they say.

Many of these measures, the researchers suggest, can mirror established metrics used to assess and address racial disparities in areas such housing, education and criminal justice. But other criteria will also need to be examined, such as accessibility of the physical environment, communication and technology. Measures of access in a particular area might look at things such as the number of curb cuts to allow wheelchair access, or the number of intersections with audible crosswalk signals.

While the researchers are calling on the NIH to catalyze research, they note that state and local agencies will also be important players, and they can take action now.

“People with disabilities often don’t get the same access to healthcare or have as good health outcomes as people without disabilities. This is because of unfair ways that things are set up in our society that make it harder for them to get the care they need,” said Valdez, who is also part of the Department of Systems and Information Engineering at the UVA School of Engineering. “Our hope is that people who read this will feel called to make things fair and equal for disabled people. This call to action isn’t only for policymakers, federal agencies, healthcare administrators or individual clinicians but for every person.”

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