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Health Professionals Lacking Insight

Editor's Note: Donna Jodhan is a member of AEBC's Toronto Chapter and serves as AEBC's 2nd Vice President. Mike Yale is an AEBC member living in Huntsville, Ontario.

A blind person goes to visit their doctor and as soon as the appointment is over, the doctor hustles out of the office, leaving the patient to find their own way out. He doesn't even tell the patient that the visit is over.

A blind person visits their doctor with a sighted friend, but the doctor speaks to the sighted friend about the blind patient, rather than directly to the patient.

A blind person goes for medical tests that require them to get undressed. The technician asks the patient if anyone has accompanied them. When the patient says "yes", the technician asks if the sighted escort can help them to get changed. When the patient says that he can do this independently and all he needs is for the technician to guide him to the cubicle, the technician replies that this is not his job.

A blind person has a scar on their face and visits their doctor with the hope of having it fixed, but the doctor asks why the patient wants the scar tended to, as he cannot see it anyway.

These are all real-life incidents experienced by blind and partially sighted people. Based on these examples, we wonder, given the choice, how interested health-care workers really are in helping us to receive the best service that this country has to offer? Most Canadians would probably say that this is no shocker, given the many challenges that our health-care system faces, but it is crucial that people in the medical services need to become aware of how to interact with blind and partially sighted persons.

Many doctors assume that people with restricted vision either do not work or are unable to do so, taking it for granted that we receive government assistance or depend financially on our families. When Donna tells them that she owns her own company and that she attended McGill University and obtained an MBA, they are shocked. Most obviously feel that we are unable to contribute to or participate in society. A number of blind patients feel that doctors, when faced with a difficult case with regard to saving or improving vision, seem to prefer to give up hope rather than give it an extra try. Blind people feel that they are not a priority when it comes to medical services, and they note that doctors often become annoyed or agitated whenever the patient attempts to ask questions about their vision or other health conditions.

Witness Mike's experience with the medical profession when he lived for a time in Toronto. In Huntsville, where he had lived for 20 years, health care workers were courteous and moderately informed, as Mike knew many of the medical professionals from around town or from his civic activities. In Toronto, it was different. While lab technicians and nurses were usually competent and friendly, his GP and heart specialist were not. The GP did not take a family history, did not explain procedures like the cardiogram, did not prescribe medication for pain, was abrupt when attempting to constructively criticize him about his lifestyle, and would not allow either Mike's guide dog or fiancee into the examining room. The heart specialist told Mike he'd already had a heart attack and ordered more tests, an angioplasty and maybe bypass surgery. But when Mike said he wanted time to think about the treatment and research alternatives, the doctor treated him like he had no right to ask questions or try to inform himself. Eventually, Mike decided to follow a naturopathic treatment.

"I felt dehumanized by the Toronto doctors," Mike says. "I felt as if they were too rushed to care for me as a person, and could only see symptoms. They seemed unable to handle my blindness or the little things they could do to relieve my fears and truly keep me informed. They seemed to resent me asking questions. They told me I was foolish and that any treatment other than theirs was nonsense and worth nothing. I know doctors have more patients in the big city and their time is at a premium, but I'm not stupid, and it is my right to choose a treatment after being completely informed. I was made to feel like a walking symptom, a thing, and a dumb thing at that. My concerns, questions and even side effects to medicine were trivialized and ignored. I was virtually coerced into medical procedures that were never fully explained to me. The internet was more helpful, and far less rude. I hope I live long enough to see some change!"

There is a very real gulf that exists in Toronto and, indeed, right across our country--an ever-widening communication gap between doctors and their blind and partially sighted patients. What can we do about this? How can we work together to bridge this widening gap between the patient and health professionals?

  • Doctors must be better educated about how to interact with patients who are blind and partially sighted.

  • Governments have to find ways to ensure that such patients are adequately treated, even if it means making more money available to do it.

  • More health professionals of all types should be trained in how to deal with the needs and demands of all disabled persons.

  • Doctors must change their attitude toward the disabled, so that they are capable of explaining themselves without the assistance of a third party--even though it is without eye contact.

  • If you are a Doctor, it is very important that you look at people with disabilities more as Human Beings, and less as an illness that you have a duty to treat. What many of us want is our doctors and other health-care providers to become more informed, understanding and compassionate. Persons with limited sight think, feel, hear, smell and taste; we just don't see very well, if at all. Please remember this the next time you encounter one of us.