The breaking point for Jenny Pharr came the day a doctor examined her dad in his wheelchair.
A rare condition left her father a paraplegic when Pharr was young, so she witnessed the everyday challenges he faced just entering hotel rooms. Several years ago he developed a pressure sore, a common problem for people who use wheelchairs. Because his primary care doctor didn't have a table accessible for patients with disabilities, 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?'"
The health of Pharr's father already had propelled her into health care. She worked her way up through the ranks to become a top administrator at one of the largest cardiology clinics 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. She returned to school to research how perceptions of patients with disabilities formed among medical professionals.
"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.
For her dissertation, Pharr studied 81 primary care practice administrators around the country. She found most were unaware of the medical equipment available for persons with disabilities. Only two had formal training in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandates that health care facilities provide medical equipment that is accessible for persons with disabilities. Less than half knew that accessible equipment was available for medical practices.
The consequences of not providing accessible equipment and treatment can be dire. People with disabilities are less likely to have their teeth cleaned when dental chairs aren't accessible, and health care personnel skip height and weight checks because they lack proper scales. Disabled women are especially at risk because they are less likely to have breast exams or pap smears due to the difficulties of getting them on the exam table for these important cancer screenings.
Not providing proper equipment also is harmful for health care workers, whose most common on-the-job injuries stem from trying to lift a patient.
"Providing full and equal access to health care services and treatment for patients with disabilities not a choice. It is a legal requirement," Pharr said. "People need to understand that."
Pharr also served as a graduate student at the Lincy Institute, which addresses health care, education, and social services issues in Nevada. She researched the effects of environment on a person's health at the institute.
Pharr hopes to teach public health at the university level and continue research on underserved populations such as the unemployed; the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered; those with mental health issues; and other minority populations.
"Jenny is so self-sufficient, bright, and ready to make a difference in health care," said Michelle Chino, a professor in environmental and occupational health who serves as Pharr's faculty mentor. "We are proud to have her as our first PhD graduate."
UNLV's doctoral program in public health is a collaborative effort with the University of Nevada, Reno. It draws on complementary expertise at both universities to create a high-quality academic program that maximizes resources and flexibility.