As a healthcare professional, your organization prides itself on providing the best possible care and health resources to all of your patients. But what if the helpful or necessary resources you provide to your patients aren’t available to 20% or more of them?
Are Your Resources Reaching Everyone?
You offer helpful tools and resources to your patients to make sure they can access helpful health information or make appointments from the comfort of their own home, but if these resources aren’t accessible to screen readers or navigable by keyboard, you could be leaving out your patients with disabilities. People with disabilities are especially prevalent in the healthcare space because they are statistically more likely to be dealing with multiple health issues, often compounded due to a primary disability.
Doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare entities are required to remove communication barriers under the ADA, and noncompliance can lead to costly litigation or at least alienation of your disabled patients. In addition to complying with the ADA and avoiding litigation, making sure your website is accessible also allows your entire client base to find information about your facility and about their own health concerns.
Those with visual disabilities are particularly impacted by inaccessibility because so many necessary forms and resources are only available as print copies or as PDFs online for patients to access. Print copies of forms, pamphlets, booklets, and other documents made available in the office are ideal for sighted patients, but for those with visual disabilities, they are useless.
A Sighted Helper is Not a Substitute for Independent Access
Many offices and hospitals assume that they don’t need to offer alternative, digitally accessible formats for forms that need to be filled out by a patient as long as they offer a sighted individual, such as a receptionist or assistant, to read the form aloud to the patient and fill out the answers for them. While this is one way to get the form filled out, it’s also a glaring HIPAA violation, because the blind or low vision patient has no choice but to share their very personal medical information with someone they don’t know, and often within earshot of the rest of the patients in the waiting room, or else the other office staff. Ideally, forms should be offered online as accessible, fillable forms for patients to complete and submit privately. That way, their information stays confidential, and they save time, frustration, and embarrassment having to fill out forms in the office.
Simply presenting the material as a digital format doesn’t automatically make the content accessible. Many document formats, particularly PDFs, are not accessible to screen reader software. If many of your informational documents are stored as inaccessible PDFs, you can choose to remediate them yourself using software that can tag the elements of your PDF to make it “readable” by screen reader software. Alternatively, if you have a large number of PDF documents that need remediated, you can opt to have professionals convert the documents for you. This also ensures that documents have been tagged correctly and that screen readers are actually able to read the information correctly and in the correct order. If you haven’t remediated your documents correctly you can still risk noncompliance and face litigation by not being accessible.
Websites, Document and Forms, Oh My!
Besides inaccessible document formats, websites can often have a number of other accessibility issues not addressed during the design phase. Website designers are usually not accessibility experts. If your website isn’t accessible to those with disabilities, at least 20% of your audience isn’t finding the necessary information they need from your website. They may not be able to find out what services are offered at your facility, what your hours of operation are, or how to book an appointment. If tabs are not clearly labeled, or keyboard navigation is not functional, they may not be able to navigate around the sections of your website to find what they need. Many of these issues are located within HTML coding, so finding them can be a bit difficult. This is where accessibility consultants come in. Experts who work with website accessibility on a daily basis have the skill and knowledge to help you identify accessibility issues and help you prioritize the remediation process. Accessibility consultants can also comb through your website to identify and catalog all the URLs, documents, and other elements of your website which could pose potential accessibility concerns.
Up to this point, little has been done to hold healthcare facilities accountable for making their websites accessible. Making websites accessible is costly, and many facilities are just realizing that digital accessibility is an issue and haven’t budgeted for such an expense. With the dramatic increase in ADA lawsuits filed in the past two years, it’s becoming obvious that people are taking notice when sites aren’t accessible. The Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has also started conducting and publishing compliance reviews of Section 1557 of the ACA, making note of facilities who choose not to address their digital accessibility shortfalls.
Head off the Complaints and Lawyers by Being Proactive
Some healthcare facilities don’t realize that their website isn’t accessible because they haven’t received a complaint, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t any issues. Assistive technology users may have just gotten frustrated and left the site, or they may not have been able to even access the part of the site where they can send a complaint. They may even decide to go directly to a lawyer for this problem instead of letting you know first.
Some lawyers crawl websites using software that can search for inaccessible HTML elements and use a plaintiff to file a complaint against non-compliant companies. Avoid both of these issues by having your website tested by accessibility experts, and fixing any potential issues as soon as possible.
While healthcare facilities focus so much on the health and wellbeing of all of their patients when they are in the office, they may forget that the information and services offered on their websites need to be available to all of their patients as well. Make sure your information is reaching everyone by providing accessible digital resources that help your clients take control of their own health and share necessary services and information. Additionally, becoming compliant with ADA regulations prevents very expensive litigation and bad press for your company. Consult experts to comb through your website to identify what’s on your website, whether or not it’s accessible, what steps you can take to make it accessible, and what remediation projects you will need help tackling.