ADA Accessibility for Healthcare Websites: How Practices Can Avoid Suits and Attract Patients
More than 3,000 digital accessibility lawsuits were brought in 2020—a 23 percent increase over the prior year. Healthcare practices and organizations, like businesses in many other industries, may be sued by web users who allege that there are site-use access barriers for those with disabilities and impairments that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and various state laws. Those caught up in these lawsuits can pay millions of dollars and be bound by the settlement to make specific changes to their websites.
With a push to make the web fully accessible by 2025, medical organizations can both avoid lawsuits and attract new patients by adapting their web properties to accommodate those with disabilities and impairments. A new search engine, accessFind, connects those with disabilities to fully accessible websites, and healthcare organizations should want to be discovered by these patients.
The ADA and various state laws include provisions mandating businesses to remove access barriers, so that users with disabilities and impairments have equal access to goods and services. When law practices search for noncompliant websites, they use scanning technology tools and user testing to determine violations. While laws are not explicit about website accommodations, courts have considered these internet properties an extension of the business and have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
This lack of direct guidance from legislation can create challenges for healthcare practices and organizations seeking to meet ADA regulations and various state laws. However, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops international standards for the web, has launched a Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which has articulated best practices for usability. These best practices for accessibility are known as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). As technology experts identify new opportunities to improve accessibility, updates to this resource will be made accordingly.
Which Healthcare Organizations Have Been Sued?
While there have been cases against big, nonmedical names such as Target, Domino’s, Nike, and the like, some smaller organizations have also been hit with web-accessibility lawsuits. Therefore, healthcare providers, even those at small to midsized practices, need to take action to prevent these suits. That said, organizations owning many healthcare entities are perhaps more likely to be a target. The following are some of the more notable cases against healthcare providers:
- Frazier v. HCA Holdings, Inc.: With over 100 hospitals in its portfolio, HCA Holdings is viewed as responsible for many medical websites. Major accessibility issues were found on HCA-owned hospital websites: Lack of alt text for images (text generally read aloud by screen reader assistive technology) and a failure to accommodate keyboard navigation (used by those who cannot operate a mouse or touchpad).
- The American Blind Community v. Tenet Healthcare: Tenet Healthcare operates Hahnemann University Hospital, Hialeah Hospital, and Coral Gables Hospital, among many other medical facilities. Tenet Healthcare was part of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the American Blind Community. It was alleged that these three hospital websites were not compatible with screen readers.
- Andres Gomez v. CAC Florida Medical Centers: Andres Gomez is a blind man who is known for filing lawsuits based on ADA protections. When he confirmed that he could not access the medical center’s website with a screen reader, he filed a lawsuit. This case was dismissed, but those who have been sued know that even when a judgement has not been made against you, litigation can still be costly.
The Key Benefits of Making Websites Accessible to All
Aside from any legal risks, many healthcare organizations view website accessibility as a smart business move. Advantages from making your website more accessible include:
- Public relations and reputation management: Positive interaction with a website leaves a good impression on visitors. When you announce these accessibility improvements, this signals that inclusivity is one of your values.
- Increased return on investment: Websites are an expense, so when you optimize your website for a better user experience, you get more from this marketing investment. Google and other search engines recognize when a website has been optimized for usability and will reward site owners with better placement in search results—which can lead to more patients in this competitive environment.
- Funding opportunities: Contracts, funding, and other governmental program benefits may be in jeopardy when an organization fails to be ADA compliant.
- Maintaining patient relationships: Some patients will acquire new disabilities over their lifespan, especially as they age. Having a fully accessible website ensures patients can continue to use your website despite these challenges.
- Target market expansion: When your website can be used by all, you stand to acquire leads in all demographics. The largest minority group in the U.S. is the disabled, with a population of about 54.4 million people (18.7 percent). As the baby boomer generation ages, the number of disabled people will increase, since more than half of people over 75 have a disability.
Accessibility Is More Accessible Than You Think
On-page self-service tools known as widgets allow site visitors to customize the user experience for their specific accessibility needs. AI-enhanced tools go even further to make websites more user-friendly for the disabled or impaired. Companies, including Medical Advantage’s medical web design arm, iHealthSpot, can provide these tools.
Website owners should also include an ADA accessibility statement once they have implemented remediation for those access barriers. This statement should include:
- An explanation of why changes have been made, stated in a positive light with no mention of lawsuits.
- The parts of the website experience that have been modified.
- Brief directions regarding how to make use of these accommodations.
- Whom to contact with problems.
Examples of accessibility statements are available online. Once remedies have been made, perform an audit with scanning tools or user testing with someone who has a disability. This lets you know that the remediations were successful and allows those with disabilities and impairments to have a positive user experience with the website.
For more information on ADA issues concerning healthcare, see ADA Frequently Asked Questions, which includes a section with more details on website compliance.
The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each healthcare provider considering the circumstances of the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.