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Why Your Digital Health Care Experiences Need to be Accessible

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By Beth Linnetz

Senior Quality Assurance Engineer

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If you work with consumer-facing healthcare technology, you’ve likely heard the term “digital accessibility,” which means optimizing digital experiences so that all users — including people with disabilities — can have access to the same information, through the same platform.  

For healthcare systems, helping users with disabilities find the information and services they need is critical to patient acquisition, care and loyalty. For example, if a patient is looking for a provider on your website or mobile application and can’t easily find the provider’s credentials, location and availability, they’ll likely go elsewhere. Not only do digital experiences that are built with accessibility in mind help users with disabilities locate the information they need, they also create a better experience for all users. This is particularly true for patients who may be experiencing temporary challenges due to disease progression, injury or while they are recovering.

Build a digitally accessible ecosystem 

Critically, digital accessibility makes it easier for users to complete necessary tasks online — independently and securely. If your organization has an audience that likely contains a disproportionate number of people with disabilities, providing an accessible experience using best practices for both accessibility and universal design will help distinguish you from the pack, as recent research shows that 98.1% of the web is not accessible. 

Some digital devices have an audience that contains a disproportionate number of users with disabilities. In these cases, creating an accessible ecosystem can set you apart from competitors. Not only will you reach the 20% of the population with a disability, but also their friends and family members. 

Digital healthcare platforms offer users many forms; whether they’re for pre-admission, general contact information or for insurance, secure and accessible online forms are an important part of healthcare access.

These kinds of forms demonstrate the importance of accessibility. For many people with disabilities, online forms offer a secure platform. The alternative for the user is to ask someone for help. While some people with disabilities have trusted helpers, the necessity to ask for help may violate privacy rights and reduce a user’s level of independence, while opening them up to potential fraud if the helper turns out to be untrustworthy. 

The WCAG guidelines were updated in 2018 to WCAG 2.1, and the latest version, WCAG 2.2, is currently drafted and awaiting final approval by the W3. These updates are meant to apply accessibility standards more effectively for mobile applications and devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), as well as make incremental changes and updates to the current requirements for better usability or to clarify older requirements. This broadening of the scope and applicability of these standards means that even device manufacturers and companies developing Software as a Medical Device (SaMD) should be working toward compliance with the draft standards right now.

The WCAG requirements provide guidelines for visible requirements such as ability to zoom (to 400%) without losing functionality, high contrast for all text and icons, and link visibility. Many users, even those who don’t self-identify as having a disability, are helped by these requirements. For example, elderly patients with low vision frequently use the browser zoom function, and become frustrated with elements that overlap or require horizontal scrolling.

Why Accessibility? 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 26% of the population in the U.S. is living with a disability. These may include vision, hearing, mobility and cognitive disabilities. People with disabilities have a disproportionately high level of healthcare-related expenses, providing an extra imperative for hospitals and clinics to make digital services easily accessible. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many healthcare providers have transitioned to virtual care. While telehealth services have been rising steadily over the last decade, this service has become a critical part of healthcare since March 2020, escalating rapidly since Medicaid coverage became available for telehealth services. Our most vulnerable populations, the elderly and people with disabilities, are the populations most at risk for COVID-19 related complications. These are also the populations who most benefit from accessible digital tools and experiences. 

What does “digitally accessible” mean? 

Digitally accessible means making information and services digitally accessible by taking the needs of all users, including those with disabilities, into account. Requirements for digital accessibility are laid out in a global set of standards by the W3, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). In the United States, digital accessibility is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as a part of public accommodation. 

Evaluate your consultancy partner closely. Is your current partner meeting the needs of your customers and patients? Here are a few simple tests that can help you decide:

  • Is all copy and functional imagery high-contrast? 
  • Can you press the tab key and easily navigate through all elements on the page? 
  • Do all images have descriptive text alternatives?
  • Using the browser zoom function, zoom in to 200%, then to 400%. Can you still read everything on the page without overlapping elements?

If these tests are successful, you can be confident that your partner takes the basic tenets of accessibility seriously, and will successfully help you navigate the requirements.

If you have questions about the accessibility of your digital health experiences and tools, we’d be happy to help. Contact us