The breaking point for Jenny Pharr came the day a doctor examined her dad in his wheelchair. A rare condition had left him a paraplegic when Pharr was young, so she witnessed the everyday challenges he faced just entering a hotel room. Several years ago he developed a pressure sore, a common problem for people who use wheelchairs. Because his primarycare doctor didn't have a table accessible for disabled patients, he couldn't conduct a full exam.
"It was unacceptable," Pharr said. "My mom just kept saying 'Why doesn't anyone do anything about this?' And it made me say, 'Yes, why? Why do these barriers exist that limit access to people with disabilities?'" Her father's health already had propelled her into health care. She worked her way up to become a top administrator at a large cardio clinic in Southern Nevada. Pharr received degrees in nutrition, exercise physiology, and business administration, all in an attempt to improve the quality of her patients' lives. But in 2009, 15 years into her career, she decided that working from within the system to change attitudes wasn't enough. "I wanted to make sure that patients like my father and other disadvantaged patients could find a voice in the health care system and understand the facilities and treatments that should be made available to them," Pharr said.
In May, she will receive UNLV's first doctorate in public health from the School of Community Health Sciences. Her dissertation explored the availability of medical equipment for persons with disabilities. She found most were unaware of the equipment available and nearly all lacked formal training in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandates that medical facilities provide such equipment. Because of the lack of proper equipment, people with disabilities are less likely than the general population to have their teeth cleaned, to have height and weight checks, or to have regular gynecological exams and breast cancer screenings. Not providing proper equipment also is harmful for healthcare workers, whose most commonon-the-job injury is back injuries caused by tryingto lift patients. Pharr plans to teach public health at the university level and continue research on underserved populations such as the unemployed; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people;those with mental health issues; and other minority populations.