Reaching an underserved population : Dr. Suzanne Smeltzer and the Health Promotion for Women with Disabilities Project
One day, an enthusiastic post-doctoral researcher encountered a worried expectant mother who suffered from multiple sclerosis. In searching for up-to-date wellness information to offer her patient, the post-doc was disappointed by the dearth of studies on pregnant women with MS. However, what the post-doc did stumble upon was the field of inquiry that she would pursue with a level of energy surpassed only by that of her compassion for the disabled.
On March 13, Suzanne C. Smeltzer, Ed.D., R.N., FAAN, professor and director of the College’s Center for Nursing Research, presented a lecture at Falvey on her investigations regarding the health issues of women with disabilities and on the ongoing Health Promotion for Women with Disabilities Project at Villanova University, funded by a grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.
Dr. Smeltzer received the Villanova University Outstanding Faculty Research Award in June 2006 and, among many other distinguished honors, the 2003 Journal of Neuroscience Nursing Writing Excellence Award. Since those days as a post-doc, she has labored incessantly on behalf of the disabled and has been recognized for her groundbreaking efforts to disseminate wellness information to women with disabilities.
Dr. Smeltzer’s research findings have also been incorporated into innovative course content, so that health care workers can be better trained in meeting the needs of disabled persons.
Although there are 54 to 60 million Americans with disabilities, roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the US population, they have been largely excluded from research studies. Furthermore, when the disabled are included, health conditions specific to women are largely neglected. Yet women with disabilities are in even greater need of wellness information than the rest of the female population.
To discover the wellness information interests of women with disabilities, a survey was administered to a sample of women recruited from organizations such as the National MS Society. Some of the women completed the survey online. Other women, whose disabilities constituted a barrier to filling out an online or print survey, participated in focus groups.
Of the twenty health topics listed in the survey, the four ranked highest by the largest number of the respondents were aging with disability, stress management strategies, exercise/physical fitness, and nutrition/healthy eating. Bone health was ranked eighth by the respondents, demonstrating how women with disabilities can be unaware of the wellness information they really need.
Due to factors such as lack of weight-bearing activity and use of certain medications, such as steroids and anti-convulsives, these women are likely at higher risk for low bone density and osteoporosis. Yet subsequent research conducted by the project also showed that many of the women, although reporting these and other risk factors, had never been screened or tested for bone loss by their health care providers. Clearly, it is essential that information regarding bone health be offered earlier and more consistently to women with disabilities.
Other health-related issues investigated as part of the project include “There is Something I Want to Tell: The Lived Experience of Partner Abuse in Physically Disabled Women,” “Mediating Stress for Women with Autoimmune Disease,” and “Cardiovascular Disease Risk among Women with Disabilities.” The Health Promotion for Women with Disabilities Project established by Dr. Smeltzer serves as an example of compassionate outreach to an underserved population.
Contributed by Barbara Quintiliano; photograph by Natalie Tomasco