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Focus at UPMC is prescription for respect


Over the past year, as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center officials developed plans for a new department charged with the responsibility of making the entire health system accessible to people with disabilities, they knew it would be a challenge to find the right person to lead it.

Obviously, the individual would need an in-depth understanding of disability and the accommodations that patients need. Just as important, the person would need to be an expert communicator who could foster disability awareness within UPMC’s nine hospitals and more than 400 doctors’ offices -- from parking lot attendants and front-desk receptionists to doctors and other clinicians.

UPMC found the person they hoped for in Susan V. Schaeffer, Ph.D., a disability specialist formerly with Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. Dr. Schaeffer became director of UPMC’s new Disabilities Resource Center in March.

Like most health-care organizations, UPMC has wheelchair ramps, automatic doors and other architectural features that allow patients to use its buildings. However, many clinics lack specific accommodations for people with disabilities. Under Dr. Schaeffer’s direction, this situation will improve.

For example, a patient who uses a wheelchair may need to be weighed on a special scale and examined on an accessible table that lowers to wheelchair height. Patients who communicate differently (for example, with sign language or a communication device) need health care providers who are flexible about how they give and get information. Patients with visual impairment need printed materials in an alternative format.

But the new accessibility initiative is not just about physical accommodations. Dr. Schaeffer and other UPMC officials underscore the importance of teaching staff to treat people with disabilities with respect and equality.

Magee center expands services
Beginning July 1, the Center for Women with Disabilities at Magee-Womens Hospital will expand its appointment schedule to three half-days per week. In addition, special equipment for women with physical disabilities will be now be available to patients in other clinics at Magee-Womens as well as at other UPMC locations. For information, call 1-866-MY-MAGEE.

“An accessible health system is welcoming to everyone,” said Margaret Kimmel, Ph.D., a UPMC board member and chair of the advisory committee for the Disabilities Resource Center. According to Dr. Kimmel, who uses a motorized scooter for mobility, personnel in an accessible health care system “respect me and are mindful of my special needs. They are people who can look you in the eye. It’s a place where you are treated without condescension.”

In choosing Dr. Schaeffer as the first director of the Disabilities Resource Center, UPMC hired an administrator with the background to implement accommodations and well-informed care in every UPMC facility. Over the past 12 years as a disability specialist at WSU, Dr. Schaeffer’s work extended well beyond the university community. She regularly collaborated with community and government agencies to create positive impact in the region.

“Susan had the experience of implementing change and making accommodations within a large system,” explained Deborah Brodine, president and chief operating officer of UPMC Community Provider Services. “UPMC is not an easy undertaking. Not because the system is that bad, but because we need to create fundamental awareness and build from there. We chose someone who has the ability to meet that challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Dr. Schaeffer welcomes. “It’s an adventure to start a new program that doesn’t have a footprint. You can do it correctly.”

At UPMC, as in other large health care organizations, problems often stem from lack of disability awareness. For this reason, Dr. Schaeffer’s immediate priority is to coordinate a training program.

Doctors are important recipients of this training. Although medical schools now pay more attention to teaching about the needs of patients with disabilities, doctors who attended medical school in earlier decades may need this information.

Another priority is to inventory services and facilities to find out which are capable of accommodating people with disabilities and where improvements are needed. Currently, UPMC has three centers with full accommodations for people with disabilities (the Center for Women with Disabilities at Magee-Womens Hospital, UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital on the South Side, and the Center for Assistive Technology, a joint program with Pitt). These centers will serve as models of care for other parts of the system.

Immediate improvements in disability access include expansion of the Center for Women with Disabilities (see sidebar for details), a new wound-care center, and a new program to transition young adults with chronic medical problems from pediatric care to general internal medicine.

“Establishing the Disabilities Resource Center is the right thing to do,” said Ms. Brodine of UPMC. “We recognize that we could do a better job for everyone.” The commitment is “long-term and ongoing,” she said, with a “considerable” budget that will evolve as needs are identified.

Indeed, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the time is right for health-care systems beyond architectural access. Disability affects approximately 20 percent of the population of the United States, and that number is rising.

People who encounter barriers in medical settings often forego preventive care, sometimes for years. Lack of preventive care may lead to a need for acute care -- and higher costs -- later on.

Health-care facilities across the country have been slow to implement appropriate accommodations for people with disabilities. UPMC hopes that its proactive effort will become a model for change. “We have the mandate and the money and the ability to make a major impact within the UPMC system,” said Dr. Kimmel. “If we do it right, UPMC will be a national leader.”

“This will be a systemwide effort,” she added. “People will not have to go to just one place for their care. That thinking alone is a remarkable achievement.”

For information about UPMC’s Disabilities Resource Center, call 412-605-1483.

Tina Calabro writes on disability issues. Her e-mail address is


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