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Meeting healthcare needs of people with disabilities during a pandemic

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Dr Vishal Sehgal, Medical Director, Portea Medical points out the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people with disabilities and presents five points to consider in order to meet their healthcare needs during a pandemic

A global crisis affects people from all walks of life, more so if it’s a health-related one. COVID-19 emerged as one such pandemic with serious impacts on the health of people – both physical and mental. While the virus can affect anyone, a look at the past health emergencies is enough to understand that such crises affect the poor and marginalised the most on one hand, and on the other, those with disabilities. People with disabilities are also those with comorbidities and therefore, more vulnerable to underlying health conditions. This can increase the severity of symptoms if they contract COVID-19. People with disabilities are also at more risk since they do not have easy access to information. Even if they do, the format may not be accessible according to their needs. For instance, in Braille, large print, sign language, among others.

The other part of the problem concerns the fact that COVID-19 prevention mandates social distancing. This can limit the availability of essential home-based care for them. Those in care homes also stand the chance of catching the infection from others. COVID-19 is therefore one of the major health inequities that people with disabilities have to face. The fact that things were already not conducive for them makes this worse. Here are five points to consider in terms of meeting the healthcare needs of such people in the times of a pandemic.

Take their unique needs into consideration

One of the main lessons from COVID-19 has been the need to include palliative care as part of preparedness. This not only includes access to medication and supplies but also check-ups and other healthcare needs. This is where home healthcare can play a major role. Placing dedicated caregivers for persons with disabilities can ensure that their overall needs are met – health, social, psychological.

Form public-private partnerships

Every pandemic reiterates how governments, civil society organisations and start-ups must work together to ensure access to quality healthcare. In the case of persons with disabilities, this kind of coordination can ensure they are provided with care and support, and that their rights are protected. Another area where they can work together is in terms of access to information in formats that is understood to people with disabilities. This will ensure that only the right and verified information reaches them.

Focus on primary care including home healthcare

There is a need to strengthen primary health care for persons with disabilities including access to emergency care at hospitals. While some needs can be met through care at home, for other requirements, primary healthcare must be accessible closer to where they live. Apart from this, community healthcare workers can be trained and mobilised to undertake home visits for non-specialised services including accompanying them to nearby care centres if there is a need.  A good example to quote here would be Rwanda’s network of 45,000 community health workers.

Develop a patient-centric approach

A patient-centric approach with individualised care is the need of the hour for people living with disabilities. For them access to care and selecting alternatives should be as open as it is to anyone without a disability. The focus should shift from the disability to the health condition ailing them – including infections like COVID-19. This will ensure that the treatment given lends them dignity while also respecting their opinions and wishes.

Training and sensitisation

Every healthcare professional including caregivers at home must be trained and sensitised on the needs of people with disabilities. This should become an integral part of the learning curriculum for health personnel. Disabilities can affect anyone and understanding the special needs can empower people with the knowledge and skill needed to handle any situation. Overall, the idea is to help people with disabilities to get respectful, inclusive, and fair treatment.

In conclusion

COVID-19 has marked the gaps there are in healthcare for people with comorbidities and disabilities. Only an effective healthcare system that draws from best practices, lessons, and recommendations around the specific health needs of people with disabilities can ensure their needs are met.

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