Pitt-UPMC Researchers Find Sharp Rise in Wheelchair Breakdowns, Health Consequences

It’s a problem that affected 52.6 percent of full-time wheelchair users in the new study; overall, 2.8 million Americans use wheelchairs.

In the findings published online today in advance of print in The American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, senior author Michael Boninger, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pitt School of Medicine, and colleagues said that wheelchair mechanical issues over six months’ time adversely impact users’ health, safety and standard of living.

Minorities and power-wheelchair users experienced a greater frequency of problems, such as various seat malfunctions, and a higher number of reported consequences, ranging from missing medical appointments to being stranded to getting injured. Users in wheelchairs that are funded by Medicare/Medicaid also had higher rates of consequences and breakdowns, and the researchers concluded that aspect might be related in part to recent alterations in insurance reimbursement policies.

More than one in three people with spinal-cord injuries reported needing two to three different repairs on their wheelchairs in a six-month period. Some 17.3 percent reported four or more repairs. In all, since the previous UPMC and Pitt research project on this subject, the average number of repairs rose nearly 40 percent—from 1.03 to 1.42—and the total number of consequences doubled.

 “It’s causing problems at an incredible rate,” said Dr. Boninger, who also is the director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute. “If another primary mode of transportation such as a car broke down so frequently, there’d be an uproar and a focused effort to address the underlying causes.”

The researchers studied 723 people using wheelchairs a minimum of 40 hours per week from 2006 to 2011. Research they conducted from 2004 to 2006 in 2,213 individuals found that one in six users reported two to three repairs in six months.

The latest study should foster a climate of revision and re-evaluation about the current policies and testing for wheelchairs, Dr. Boninger and colleagues concluded. Funding for this research came from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, and the U.S. Department of Education.