The vast majority of doctors across the nation believe that people with significant disabilities have worse quality of life than others, according to a first-of-its-kind study.

Researchers surveyed 714 physicians practicing in various specialties and locations on their feelings about patients with disabilities. More than 82% reported that such individuals experience subpar quality of life compared to people without disabilities.

“That physicians have negative attitudes about patients with disability wasn’t surprising,” said Lisa I. Iezzoni, lead author of the study published this month in the journal Health Affairs and a health care policy researcher at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “But the magnitude of physicians’ stigmatizing views was very disturbing.”

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Only about 40% of doctors surveyed felt confident that they could provide the same quality of care to patients with disabilities that they provide to others, the study found.

Meanwhile, just 56% “strongly agreed” that they welcomed people with disabilities at their offices even though the Americans with Disabilities Act requires equal access to health care.

Female doctors working at academic medical centers were most likely to be welcoming toward patients with disabilities, the study found.

“We wouldn’t expect most physicians to say that racial or ethnic minorities have a lower quality of life, yet four-fifths of physicians made that pronouncement about people with disabilities. That shows the erroneous assumptions and a lack of understanding of the lives of people with disability on the part of physicians,” Iezzoni said.

The researchers said their findings highlight questions about access and quality of care.

“Our results clearly raise concern about the ability of the health care system to ensure equitable care for people with disability,” said Eric G. Campbell of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus who worked on the study.

The issue of equal access to health care for people with disabilities has come to the fore in recent times as the COVID-19 pandemic has strained hospital capacity, forcing questions about care rationing. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights issued a bulletin last spring warning states and health care providers not to discriminate against people with disabilities. And, the agency subsequently reached agreements with multiple states to make changes to their crisis standards of care guidelines in response to complaints about disability discrimination.

Those behind the new study said it’s important to add training about disabilities to medical education, something which is currently lacking at most schools. The researchers indicated that they plan to further study how doctors’ perceptions about disabilities are affecting disparities in health care.

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