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MGH Hotline 07.10.09 Many associate the term "health care disparities" with gaps in the quality of health and health care among ethnic, racial and socioeconomic populations. But national studies point to another group that experiences health care disparities as well -- the disabilities community.

The MGH and BWH lead initiative to improve access for persons with disabilities

10/Jul/2009

Improving access to care: From left, Mondejar and Vega-Barachowitz

Many associate the term "health care disparities" with gaps in the quality of health and health care among ethnic, racial and socioeconomic populations. But national studies point to another group that experiences health care disparities as well -- the disabilities community. It is a sobering fact that individuals with disabilities across the United States face a number of barriers to health care, such as limited physical access to and at health care facilities, inadequate training of medical staff treating patients with disabilities, and insufficient equipment and devices for patients and visitors with disabilities.

To address these concerns, in 2003, Marianne Spicer, then-director of MGH Corporate Compliance, and Jeff Davis, senior vice president for MGH Human Resources, established the MGH Council on Disabilities Awareness (CDA). Chaired by Carmen Vega-Barachowitz, MS, CCC-SLP, director of Speech, Language, Swallowing and Reading Disabilities, and Oz Mondejar, vice president of Human Resources for Partners Continuing Care, the CDA comprises members from across the MGH, including representatives from patient care services, human resources, facilities, support services and senior management, as well as a number of patient participants. Through its commitment to improving care for people with disabilities, the CDA has developed key collaborations with local organizations such as the Boston Center for Independent Living (BCIL) and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to identify and sponsor hospital initiatives to address disabilities-related matters at the MGH.

"The mission of the Council on Disabilities Awareness seeks to move beyond mandates of compliance to fostering a welcoming environment for patients with different disabilities," says Vega-Barachowitz. "Many of the changes the council has initiated over the past six years have greatly benefited patients and visitors. The participation of employees from across the hospital, as well as the critical input from our council members with disabilities, have helped us to not only increase awareness of disabilities concerns but also to enhance the environment throughout the hospital."

Recently, the MGH and BWH -- under the auspices of MGH President Peter L. Slavin, MD, BWH President Gary Gottlieb, MD, and the disability councils from both institutions -- collaborated with BCIL leaders to launch a comprehensive initiative reaffirming the hospitals' and Partners HealthCare's commitment to focusing on the special needs of people with disabilities at each hospital. At an event June 26 at the MGH to celebrate the collaboration, Slavin and Gottlieb were joined by guest speakers Lisa Iezzoni, MD, MSc, director of the MGH Institute for Health Policy; Bill Henning and Karen Schniederman, of the BCIL; Stacey Berloff and Pamela Daly, patients representing the disabilities community; Dan Manning of Greater Boston Legal Services; and Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services JudyAnn Bigby, MD. Each offered moving remarks thanking the MGH, BWH and Partners for their collaborative work with the BCIL and patients with disabilities pioneering the historic plan that stands to serve as a model across the commonwealth and beyond for equitable health care, services and access for people with disabilities.

"Even under the best of circumstances, visiting a hospital for care can be an intimidating experience," says Mondejar. "For the millions of Americans who have a limiting disability, it can be all the more challenging. Assumptions can create barriers themselves. One way to prevent the potential for misunderstanding is to include the individual by asking questions when in doubt, listening carefully and communicating effectively."

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