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Health inequalities lead to early death in persons with disabilities

Posted on the 20th December 2022

Disabled health inequalities

People with disabilities are at a much higher risk of dying up to 20 years earlier than those without disabilities, according to a new report

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stressed the need for urgent action to improve health outcomes for the estimated 1.3 billion people who live with a disability worldwide, and has called for the international health sector to embed principles of inclusion, accessibility, and non-discrimination.

The WHO’s Global report on health equity for persons with disabilities, released ahead of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in early December, states that systemic and persistent health inequities place persons with disabilities at greater risk of premature death and of developing chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, depression, cardiac disease, and osteoporosis.

Regional variations in health outcomes are also significant: for example, the crude annual death rate of persons with intellectual disabilities in the UK is twice that of the general population.

According to the WHO, many of the differences in health outcomes are caused not by impairments or underlying health conditions, but by avoidable and unjust structural factors.

The main barriers to health equity identified by the WHO include negative attitudes from healthcare providers, inaccessible health information, and difficulties in accessing health centres due to transportation-related or financial impediments. The report states that, in the USA, nearly 50% of adults with disabilities are living in or near poverty, while also having to confront the elevated costs of living associated with disability.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, reiterated the WHO’s commitment to ensuring that all people with disabilities have access to quality health services.

“This report shines a light on the inequities that people with disabilities face in trying to access the care they need,” he said. “Health systems should be alleviating the challenges that people with disabilities face, not adding to them.”

Drawing on academic evidence and on consultations with civil society stakeholders, NGOs, persons with disabilities, and their representative organizations, the WHO has also laid out 40 actions that governments can take to lessen health disparities.

These include establishing a human rights-based approach to health, increasing funding to address health inequities, training all health sector staff on respectful communication, investing in health policy and systems research, and using digital health technologies to promote accessibility.

The report also underlines the cost-effectiveness of investing in a disability-inclusive health sector, estimating that for every 1 USD invested in so-called ‘Health for All’, governments could expect a return of 10 USD.

Dr Bente Mikkelsen, WHO Director for Noncommunicable Diseases, highlights that addressing health inequities for persons with disabilities benefits everyone, by contributing to healthier populations and protecting all members of society during health emergencies.

“Older persons, people with noncommunicable diseases, migrants and refugees, or other frequently unreached populations, can benefit from approaches that target the persistent challenges to disability inclusion in the health sector.”

Related: Health inequalities widening for minorities post-pandemic

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