Researchers Find Sharp Increase in Wheelchair Breakdowns

May 7, 2012

Wheelchairs break 40% more often than they used to, according to a new study by researchers at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The incidence of breakdowns in previous years was already high, according to senior author Dr. Michael Boninger, but a surge in failures since 2006 has left more people with spinal-chord injuries in inconvenient and unsafe situations.

"If that wheelchair fails, then you can essentially go from being completely independent to being stuck in bed all day long or on a couch because you have no way to get from point A to point B," Boninger said.

Breakdowns ranged from simple fixes, like flat tires, to complex repairs of remote-controlled seats. Between 2004 and 2006 the researchers found one in six full-time wheelchair users reported two to three such repairs during a six-month period. Now they contend that number has nearly doubled. Of the users surveyed, 52.6% said they had to get at least one repair in a 6-month period. More than a third needed two to three repairs, according to the study, published online by The American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

"If cars broke down at the same rate that we saw failures in the wheelchair population, or if car failures resulted in the same number of people being injured or stranded, there'd be an uproar," said Boninger, who is also a professor and the chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.

A disproportionately high rate of breakdowns was found among users of powered wheelchairs and minorities users.

"The minority question is an interesting one," Boninger said. "An easy answer might be that in the minority group there's inequity in care, and the minority group just got a chair that was more likely to break." A deeper exploration of this causation was beyond the scope of the study, but Boninger said physicians should be better educated on the options available.

Other solutions could include, Boninger said, better methods of educating consumers on proper wheelchair use and stricter standards for product testing. He said currently manufacturers are allowed to test their own chairs and suggested this process should be done independently.