Barriers to Healthcare When Sensory Sensitivity Is a Problem

Barriers to healthcare

What is a barrier to healthcare?  A barrier is an obstacle.  Barriers to healthcare can mean poor health outcomes and well-being. This is true for people of all ages.

Healthcare is delivered by many different health professionals. Sometimes called healthcare providers. They include:

  • hospitals and hospital staff,
  • medicine or medical services delivered by physicians or medical doctors,
  • nurse practitioners, and nurses,
  • occupational therapy,
  • physiotherapy/physical therapy,
  • speech-language pathologists,
  • social workers,
  • psychology,
  • dentistry,
  • and so on.

Healthcare also includes treating both physical health and mental health.

Healthcare professional talking to unhappy teenage patient in exam room.

People with sensory sensitivity, they might feel senses more or less than other people. As a result, some people might be highly sensitive. They feel their senses more intensely.  Some people have less sensitivity. They might be hyposensitive and feel their senses less intensely.  Furthermore, sensory sensitivity is a problem for many people.  It is a problem for veterans with PTSD.  For people of any age with anxiety, autism, concussion, hearing loss.  And finally for many other challenges or underlying disabilities.

Sensory sensitivity is a documented barrier to healthcare

Sensory sensitivity and sensory barriers in healthcare is a common problem for people with autism. A recent study shows that adults with autism identify sensory issues as a barrier to receiving adequate healthcare services. In this article published in 2017, the authors of the study reported that autistic participants identified sensory barriers to healthcare. Particularly in areas related to emotional regulation, patient-provider communication, sensory sensitivity, and healthcare navigation. This was in comparison to people with other disabilities or people without autism.  Moreover, 30% of the adults with autism who responded, said specifically that the facilities themselves contributed to their sensory issues.  And the sensory issues were a barrier to their access to healthcare.

Sensory sensitivity is not just a problem for adults with autism.  There are many people with sensory sensitivity that contributes to sensory issues and in particular, sensory overload.  Furthermore, this includes people with a number of other underlying conditions that are increasingly prevalent. Examples are as anxiety, autism, concussion, dementia, hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  As well, these conditions and their associated sensory sensitivities stop people from enjoying daily life.

Girl showing healthcare professional a drawing of a house.

What helps people with sensory sensitivity overcome barriers to healthcare?

Did you know that there are very practical things to do to help people with sensory sensitivity overcome barriers to healthcare?  One of the biggest changes is to make healthcare facilities and environments sensory-friendlySensory-friendly means creating a space that is friendly to the senses.  In addition, the sensory experience will be less intense.  Moreover, specifically for those who have sensory sensitivity. Or for people who experience sensory overload.

Sometims environments are sensory-rich. That means they are busy, noisy, and bright.   Where possible, reducing background noise is critical to make an environment more sensory-friendly. Simply eliminate constant background music.  Alternatively, limiting the times background music is play is a helpful change.

Another important part of being sensory-friendly is informing people of expectations. A large healthcare facility can create a sensory-friendly map. It displays where noisy areas are and quiet places are.   Signs that show noisy spots and quiet spots are also helpful.

A sensory-friendly example for veterans that removed barriers to healthcare

African American woman in military uniform standing and holding young child.

A wonderful example of a sensory-friendly transformation project is removing barriers to healthcare for veterans by creating a sensory-friendly space.  That sensory-friendly transformation included designing a room where veterans would come in for interviews.  They would also come in for meetings about their healthcare services and benefits.

In the transformation of this small meeting room, a key consideration was that veterans of all ages and all abilities.  People across the lifespan would come in to meet with staff that served veterans.

  • Younger veterans with PTSD might use the room.
  • Veterans who were in their 80s or older with mobility difficulties might also use the room.
  • In addition, veterans with hearing loss might use the room.
  • Finally, family or caregivers might also accompany veterans.
  • And family members could include children.

In this setting example, there were many sensory sensitivities to take into account. In addition, accessibility and the comfort of both the staff and the veterans were important too. There were guidelines created by the veteran’s facility itself to follow. Moreover, the healthcare facility created a new budget to order new furniture. Finally it collaborated with a local interior designer for help.

Sensory-friendly seating

Both a love seat and individual upholstered chairs were included.  For example, sometimes veterans might like to sit independently in their own chair. But other veterans may want to sit on the love seat next to their spouse, partner or caregiver.  Likewise, seating is important for the senses of balance, movement, and touch.  The spaces between the seating are important for hearing.  For some veterans, the staff would need to sit directly in front of the veteran.  That way they could see each other’s faces easily.  It was important to set up the chairs and loveseat so they could face each other. But also allow for a different choice if desired.  Additionally, someone could sit facing the window. Or, with their back to the window.  This is an important factor in an individual’s sense of sight.


A great deal of thought went into the simple décor.  Cool tones were used for the room.  A bright, slightly aqua blue (so it would not feel too military) and greys for the most part.  The colour palette was simple.  Likewise, simple décor was added.  But there was plain space on the walls too. So it was not too visually overwhelming.  It was important for the room to feel comfortable.  It was important to not be institutional.  The room had the advantage of great natural light.  Finally, it was important to ensure that the light could be blocked off easily.  Blinds were added reduce glare from the sun.  And adjust light coming through the windows.


A small table that could be easily moved around the seats was added.  In addition, furniture risers were put under the love seat and couch. So, it was easy to sit down on.  In addition, easier to stand up from a slightly higher seat height.   This was important to many veterans experiencing knee and back problems. This affected their mobility.  Furthermore, chairs and a love seat were added with arms. They had firm seats and backs.  A few pillows were included to softened things up. They also provided extra back support if needed.

Final touches

There was careful consideration to what was put on the walls.  Photography and prints of nature are nice.  Caution was taken to not evoke memories of the theatre of war.  As well, a clock, garbage can and a table with a box of tissues were added for practical reasons. To manage smells, the garbage can was on the cleaner’s list to empty daily.  Small things, but nevertheless important to include.  There is also a public bathroom close by. And a public water fountain about 50 feet away from the room.

Let us go through each of the eight senses.  Here are examples of how to make a space sensory-friendly.  Learn how to remove barriers to healthcare.

Strategies to create a sensory-friendly interview room.

Download the free infographic about making your interview room sensory friendly. No email required.

Read more about other sensory-friendly healthcare examples in dentistry and massage therapy.

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