Almost 80% of disabled patients do not feel independent in healthcare environments and almost three quarters of people who support others feel more adjustments are necessary. 

The research was conducted by learning disability and autism support provider Dimensions as part of their #MyGPandMe project that aims to make healthcare accessible for people with learning disabilities and autism.

Around 600 people took part in the ‘Building Better Together’ survey, which looked at four key areas: independence, choice and control, dignity, feeling relaxed and patient care. All of which are environmental stressors that can result in heightened anxiety and missed appointments. 

Almost a third of people with learning disabilities or autism feel less likely to be treated with care and concern at the doctors, and two thirds said their GP did not make reasonable adjustments for them.

Dignity was an important factor to reduce anxiety around GP appointments

The report stated that healthcare buildings must not increase an individual’s dependence on others. Signs, ramps, railings and doors were found to be of significant importance for disabled patients navigating the building, without needing more support than they would elsewhere.

Yet, only half of disabled people said they can understand the signs in their surgery and just 18% of those who support someone with a disability. They said that automatic doors were essential to move around independently and reduce the need to rely on others.

Another issue was dignity, which can be impacted by requiring assistance, lack of privacy and unsuitable toilet facilities. Less than half of respondents felt toilet facilities in primary care met people’s needs and Changing Places facilities were highlighted as an important adjustment, where possible.

Respondents also cited high reception desks as a significant barrier to dignity, especially for people in wheelchairs. The distance between people can result in high-volume conversations about private health matters.

For many, anxiety from the undignified start leads to poorer outcomes from the appointment itself. Environmental stressors are made worse when patient care wasn't supportive or respectful.

Covid-19 and disabled peoples' experience of GP surgeries

Dimensions said that the global pandemic has seen healthcare provisions change overnight, proving that adjustments can be made quickly and while some could remain permanent after the pandemic, they must be appropriate for everyone.

Respondents to the survey said that in-person appointments are still very important and, while virtual consultations work for some people, they’re not well-suited for annual health checks or for people who do not communicate with words.

Dimensions Quality Checker, Ann McCallum, said: “At the moment, there are people who need to get to their surgery, but they can’t because of reasons that are beyond their control. I know from personal experience that people can get a fear of doctor’s surgeries and hospitals – but I know that if those places could get things right for me, then I might be a bit more forthcoming.

“There will always be some fear, of not knowing what the tests results will say or how things will go, but it can get blown out of proportion when the whole process is difficult, from making that initial phone call, through to attending an appointment.

“I think the relationship between patients and their doctor is really important, but you need time to build it and it’s a lot easier when you are more relaxed.”

Dimensions and Assura PLC are working together to provide support for existing and new primary care facilities to be more accessible and adaptive. They are calling for the national disability strategy to reflect this and help improve healthcare facilities nationally.