REHACARE.com spoke with Dr. Peter Müller. He is Managing Director of the German Public Health Foundation, which launched the project in 2009.
Dr. Müller, what are the objectives of this project?
Dr. Peter Müller: We want to do our part in assisting all patients in finding the physicians that are best suited for them. The Public Health Foundation, which was founded in 1996, is responsible for the Doctor Search function, a comprehensive directory of all health care providers in Germany. Since 2009, the "Accessible Practice" project builds on this directory and adds information on accessible design to the Doctor Search function. Our motivation is simple: nobody else has tackled this subject – even though the need is great for many people. Incidentally, we are not just referring to wheelchair users here: accessibility also means addressing the needs of people who are visually and hearing impaired for example.
The project is successful: so far, approximately 80,000 physicians have provided information about the accessibility of their offices – and although we are very happy about this fact, there is still lots of room for improvement. One added bonus of this work is that we are in touch with companies and politicians at the federal and state level. Our work sparks interest – and patients benefit from being able to locate those physicians that are best suited for their needs.
Why are so many medical practices inaccessible to disabled persons?
Müller: You need to take a more nuanced look at this. Obviously, accessibility involves additional costs. Yet a sufficient degree of awareness during the office design stage can significantly reduce extra costs. Colorful door frames for people with low vision, brackets for walkers or a low reception desk so staff members are able to literally look patients in wheelchairs in the eye – all of this is a lot cheaper if you already take these kinds of measures into account when you build a new office.
There are many reasons why countless medical practices are still not accessible: the subject is not really incorporated into the demand planning for contracted statutory health insurance physicians for example. Oftentimes, the structural conditions are also simply not suited to effectively accommodate persons with disabilities. Some physicians have also told us that they actually don’t want to be accessible – because the special treatment of patients with disabilities is said to not be economical.
What measures would you need to take, so your medical practice can be considered accessible?
Müller: This question is difficult to answer because there is no "one" degree of accessibility. The individual requirements of medical practices are as varied as the impairments of patients. That means, there are inevitably conflicts between objectives when it comes to accessibility: a leader dog for the blind in the waiting room of an allergist is a great example of this. This is why generalizing requests to make all medical practices accessible for all people are not realistic.
To support the medical community in the sensible design of their medical practices, we- along with the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs- developed the "Practice Tool for More Accessibility", an interactive system to assist with accessible office design.
What does inclusion mean to you?
Müller: Inclusion covers a broad area. It is extremely important to discuss this in depth and consider the various aspects. In terms of health care, to us, it means that all people should have the equal basic right to freely choose their medical practitioners. We are still lacking in this area in this country because there are still not enough accessible medical practices to accommodate people with disabilities within an appropriate proximity. Unfortunately, an awareness of this problem and the willingness to change something about it still seem to be inadequate in many places.