IMG_1057 – Home & Community Options

Sally and Tonya

Navigating the Strained Healthcare System: A Closer Look at Medical Care for Aging Individuals with Developmental Disabilities

As individuals with developmental disabilities grow older, they face the challenge of managing age-related health issues alongside their existing conditions. This group often requires specialized healthcare services beyond regular check-ups and preventive care. Therefore, it’s important for healthcare providers to be knowledgeable about their specific needs and the challenges faced by this population.  The individuals we support need a physician who not only understands their medical needs, but also one who has a demeanor that individuals are comfortable enough with to allow an exam or test to take place.

Unfortunately, many communities in our nation, including our own local area, are facing strain due to increasing demands for care and a shortage of providers.

The following statistics offer a glimpse into the magnitude of this issue in our country:

  • The average wait for an appointment with a physician for new patients is 26 days (according to a 2022 survey of 15 metropolitan areas by the physician recruiting firm Merritt Hawkins).
  • According to data published in 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the U.S. faces a projected shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.
  • Survey data from the Minnesota Department of Health (released in 2022) indicates alarming projected workforce losses in Minnesota’s small towns and rural areas with nearly 1 in 5 rural health care providers saying they plan to leave their profession within the next five years.

The limited availability of healthcare providers presents notable difficulties for individuals with developmental disabilities, worsening disparities in accessing quality care. Due to the scarcity of specialists and caregivers, these individuals often encounter extended wait times for appointments and struggle to find providers who can adequately address their specific needs. This shortage not only delays diagnosis and treatment but also limits access to crucial therapies and support services vital for their well-being.  Individuals may also struggle with comprehending the prolonged wait times for these appointments or procedures, particularly when they are experiencing discomfort or pain.  As they grapple with their health issues, the frustration and confusion stemming from prolonged waiting periods can amplify their physical and emotional burdens, underscoring the critical need for improved accessibility and efficiency within healthcare services.

Because of this strain on our healthcare system, many individuals with developmental disabilities face gaps in care, which can lead to increased health risks, reduced quality of life, and heightened pressure on caregivers.

Here at HCO, trained support staff play a vital role in assisting individuals with scheduling check-ups and other healthcare appointments.  This task can be quite challenging and requires teams to plan months in advance.  Finding healthcare professionals whom individuals can relate to can be tough, and communication barriers often make it difficult for individuals with developmental disabilities to fully express their healthcare needs. Ensuring that individuals’ voices are heard and their health needs addressed requires persistent advocacy efforts from the support staff, and addressing these communication challenges requires additional time and patience from all parties involved.

Increased fears and anxiety about going to the doctor is common and often prevents individuals from attending routine medical appointments. Additionally, when individuals do seek help for issues beyond routine check-ups, they may need to book further appointments or face redirection to specialists, adding to their anxiety.

Follow-up appointments may also be scarce, leaving individuals in pain and discomfort, which is particularly distressing for those we serve to comprehend. Moreover, individuals with multiple diagnoses and medications require close monitoring, posing a delicate balancing act to determine the effectiveness of treatments.

The individuals served by HCO face the same challenges as people throughout the United States – wait times for appointments and extended stays in waiting rooms.  For some, this leads to heightened anxiety levels, particularly for those already struggling with medical concerns.

Jill wasn’t feeling well, so her support team rushed to get her to Urgent Care. But as they waited, her anxiety grew. The crowded room and ticking clock overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t hold back her frustration. Despite efforts to calm her, Jill became loud and agitated, causing a scene. Eventually, unable to endure the wait any longer, she had to leave without getting the care she needed. It was a difficult reminder of the challenges individuals like Jill face in accessing timely healthcare.

Complicating things further, staff often encounter obstacles due to insurance constraints dictating the type and timeliness of care, leaving few options for physicians and care providers like HCO.

Gaps in traditional healthcare forces individuals with developmental disabilities to increasingly rely on support from organizations like Home and Community Options and their families to meet daily living needs. As they age, these needs often change, requiring adjustments in the type and level of support provided. This could include assistance with personal care, mobility, communication, and accessing community resources.

Effective planning for these changes and transitions across different life stages is essential for individuals with developmental disabilities. As they age, transitions may occur in various areas such as housing, employment, healthcare, and support services. Successful transition planning requires collaboration among individuals, families, caregivers, day programs, and other relevant agencies to ensure continuity of care and support throughout their lives.

Furthermore, maintaining social connections and participating in community activities are crucial for the overall well-being of those we serve. Unfortunately, aging adults with developmental disabilities often encounter additional hurdles to social integration, including societal stigma, accessibility limitations, and communication barriers. Recognizing the importance of inclusivity, HCO prioritizes the promotion of inclusive environments and the provision of opportunities for social engagement and meaningful relationships for all individuals.

In closing, it’s clear that meeting the diverse needs of individuals with developmental disabilities as they age demands a collaborative effort. Addressing this issue requires concerted efforts to enhance recruitment and training within the healthcare workforce, prioritize inclusive care approaches, and effectively allocate resources to ensure equitable access to healthcare services for everyone, regardless of their abilities.

Organizations like Home and Community Options are essential in filling the gaps in traditional healthcare, fostering inclusive environments, and facilitating smooth transitions. It’s important to maintain our focus on providing comprehensive support and resources to empower individuals with developmental disabilities to lead fulfilling lives in their communities. Together, we can contribute to creating a more inclusive society where everyone can thrive.