June 02, 2021

Health and health care disparities in the LGBTQ+ community

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In the past year, the topic of racial and ethnic disparities has become a national focal point, gaining public attention and increased education efforts. As important as these disparities are, there are other vulnerable populations across the U.S. who need improved health outcomes, safety in patient care, and disease prevention.

Nationally, LGBTQ+ populations are susceptible to poor health due to systemic discrimination, low percentages of provider cultural competency, low rates of health insurance coverage, and a lack of research data—among other factors.

While there are many staggering statistics, we know, for example, that rates of cervical cancer are often higher in women who identify as lesbian. Women in the LGBTQ+ community experience more emotional stress than heterosexual women, cites The National Library of Medicine.

Plus, LGBTQ+ youth are among the most vulnerable, often struggling with issues of increased disease, and a lack of LGBTQ+ health-informed physicians in their region. Med Care states that young LGBTQ+ find it difficult to report their sexual identity to their clinicians, and are often disproportionately affected by depression, anxiety, and suicide.

I know we have a long way to go in our journey towards a national health care system that works equally for all, but I have a sense of hope—one that stems from my confidence in our excellent patient care and cutting-edge research. At UAB, we are a hub of expertise in health and health care disparities.

In 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) greatly increased funding towards sexual and gender minority studies, and extended its research portfolio to establish the Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office—an office that coordinates NIH-sponsored activities on sexual and gender health issues, while providing guidance to investigators.

This national effort is reflective of a robust drive for change in physicians, researchers, trainees, and their patients.

I am proud that our School of Medicine community is part of the current national LGBTQ+ efforts, and I am especially proud of our leading role among the southeastern region in more equitable patient care for this vulnerable group.

From 2016 to present, UAB Medicine has earned top marks from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in meeting nondiscrimination and training criteria that demonstrate a commitment to equitable, inclusive care for LGBTQ+ patients and their families. Plus, our initiatives and programs continue to gain momentum.

A few examples of our programs include the Sexual Health Research Clinic and STD Research Program—both in the Division of Infectious Diseases—which seek to help UAB researchers advance their work in the realm of sexually transmitted infections and sexual health, giving teams expanded space and time to continue collecting data and advancing patient care.

The Department of Psychiatry manages the LGBTQ+ Mental Health and Wellness Clinic, which provides outpatient mental health services to both adults and gender non-conforming children and adolescents, as well as LGBTQ+ medical and mental health competency training for providers.

The School of Medicine also houses the 1917 HIV Clinic—the largest HIV health care unit in Alabama and one of the country’s leading HIV clinics.

Excellent patient care means patient safety, equity in care, and protection from discrimination.

Just as with patient care, it’s vital that our LGBTQ+ staff, trainees, students, and physicians feel safe and protected within our enterprise. It is essential for academic medical centers across the country to embrace inclusion for those who identify as LGBTQ+. Foundational to our mission is cultivating a sense of belonging and connectedness among our employees and students.

While I am happy that we continue to make progress on addressing the health and health care disparities of LGBTQ+ in Birmingham and beyond, I also believe we can continue to transform our medical environments into a welcoming space for both patients and our own School of Medicine family.

As with all disparities, the School of Medicine is uniquely positioned regionally to be a beacon of hope for LGBTQ+ communities. We will continue to invest in research initiatives and clinical programs. We will continue to evaluate our environments for our LGBTQ+ faculty, staff, trainees, and students.