By its nature, healthcare should be an inclusive space. Regardless of the patient’s identity, orientation, or background, HCPs have to offer the best possible quality of care. Unfortunately, there is a history of LGBTQIA+ patients being disrespected by the healthcare industry. Though we have made progress, discrimination is still very much a problem among numerous facilities and states. If we want to progress, as a society, we need to move past these deeply-rooted biases. Healthcare should be a space where everyone is treated equally, regardless of their orientation.
How do we go about enacting change? What can HCPs do to make LGBTQIA+ patients feel safe? Below, we will unpack how LGBTQIA+ patients are treated unfairly, and how HCPs like yourself can change things for the better.
What issues do LGBTQIA+ patients face?
Historically, LGBTQIA+ patients have struggled with healthcare access, relative to heterosexual patients. For example, acquiring health insurance has been more of a struggle for queer patients. In 2019, uninsured rates for queer patients sat at 12.7 percent, compared to 11.4% for straight individuals. Thanks to discriminatory practices, delays for care or outright refusal from healthcare facilities are all too common.
Outright discrimination is not the only issue faced by LGBTQIA+ patients. The costs for gender-reaffirming surgeries and hormone replacement therapy can be exorbitant, depending on where the patient lives. If these services are not covered under their insurance, access to these services is outright impossible for a subset of queer individuals. In many cases, HCPs also do not have the appropriate culturally sensitive and competent care for queer individuals.
What can be done?
This breakdown scratches the surface of the struggles of LGBTQIA+ patients. Historically, discrimination has jeopardized their access to basic healthcare services. The situation has improved over the years, but there is still work to be done. As we speak, 1 in 8 LGBT+ people resides in states where it is legal for hospitals to refuse care for LGBTQIA+ patients under the guise of “religious freedom.”
Before any sweeping changes are enacted, HCPs must look inwards. The onus is on HCPs and facilities to improve their approach towards LGBTQIA+ patient care. To get started, we have listed several useful points below:
Learn terms and definitions
Do all these definitions regarding queer identity confuse you? To avoid being lost, you want to educate yourself on common terms and issues in the LGBTQIA+ space. With a greater base of knowledge, you will have a better understanding of how your patient wants to be treated and addressed, as you provide care to them. Let us take the difference between sex and gender, for example.
Sex typically refers to the label assigned to someone at birth, based on their anatomical attributes. The traditional “male or female” dichotomy stems from this. There are also intersex individuals, who possess biological traits that exist outside of the male and female binary.
Gender refers to the socially constructed traits of men and women. This includes the behaviors, habits, and roles traditionally attributed to both. Gender identity refers to how someone perceives themselves, within this spectrum. Within that spectrum, an individual can be of the male or female gender, another gender, or no gender. Gender identity is fluid and determined entirely by the individual.
This only scratches the surface. This does not tackle all the various gender identities and labels that exist within the spectrum. Thankfully, there are a number of different resources available for further research. We recommend this page of LGBTQIA+ definitions listed by the University of Florida.
Foster a hospitable environment
As you can imagine, many LGBTQIA+ patients are typically on their toes. When you are out, you never know where you will be accepted for who you are. HCPs have a responsibility to promote and foster a friendly environment for everyone, regardless of their orientation. Simply treating a patient with the respect and tact that you would any other patient can make a world of difference. This assures the patient that their identity is recognized and does not make them any different or “less desirable” than a straight patient.
Make use of gender-neutral terms
If you have to ask them about their romantic or sexual lives, use gender-neutral terms like “partner” and “spouse” to leave things open-ended. This makes it clear to them that you are not assuming anything until it is explicitly specified by them. These are the little touches that will make them feel welcome and accepted.
Create an inclusive workspace
You can even customize your workspace, to nonverbally communicate that you are accepting of all beliefs and orientations. Pride flags on your desk, pro-LGBTQIA+ posters, and other inclusive symbols can immediately foster the hospitable and inclusive atmosphere you are looking for. It may not seem like much, but many queer patients enter a hospital with their guard naturally up. When they see these decorations in your office, they can breathe an immediate sign of relief, knowing that their HCP will treat them with the respect that they deserve.
Use their preferred pronouns
For a lot of people, pronouns can be easy to take for granted. Addressing someone by their preferred pronouns may not seem like much, but it can be a powerful gesture toward your LGBTQIA+ patients. It is clear communication that you recognize, acknowledge, and respect their gender identity. If your patient shares their pronouns of choice, use them at all times. If you ever use the wrong pronouns and are corrected, acknowledge that you made a mistake and promise to adjust moving forward.
Educate yourself on LGBTQIA+ Issues
Queer patients have unique struggles that you may not be aware of. Thanks to the discrimination they face, and the aforementioned barriers to treatment, they are subject to a number of health conditions including:
- Substance abuse.
- Cardiovascular problems
- Limited research regarding and access to hormones.
- Mental health issues (stress and depression) stemming from harassment or discrimination.
- Eating disorders
- Higher susceptibility to cancer or STDs, thanks to limited screening options
Inform yourself of the issues commonly faced by the queer community. This way, you know what to look out for and what conditions you should be prepared to address.
Creating a kinder atmosphere
All these suggestions merely scratch the surface of what must be done. Providing equitable treatment to LGBTQIA+ patients requires some extra effort and education. With the right approach, however, all this will pay off. It can be difficult for queer patients to secure healthcare services at all, thanks to the discrimination they face on even a legislative level. Even if they manage to secure the services of the facility, there is no guarantee that they are safe from harassment or insensitive treatment. A little kindness goes a long way, and HCPs should feel obliged to provide just that.