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Health Care and the LGBT Community

Oct. 4, 2016
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Back in the day, a group of LGBT individuals, including myself, participated in an annually convened panel to share our experiences with the health care system. It was held at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) as part of a Human Sexuality course requirement for second year students. The idea was to acquaint young medical students with our community and provide them with insights to help them understand their future LGBT patients.

The panelists spoke about their close encounters with health care providers that ranged from the unremarkably typical to incredibly humiliating ones. Some spoke of their doctors’ blatant ignorance of our specific needs. Trans individuals were especially prone to victimization by everyone along the health care chain of contact—from rude receptionists to insensitive doctors and of course, uncooperative insurance companies. The MCW eventually dropped the program, apparently made obsolete by the school’s implementation of an inclusive patient care strategy. 

In the meantime, Froedtert Hospital and MCW have been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign as “Leaders in LGBT Health Care Equality.” Several other hospitals in the area have been as well. Indeed, the bedside manner of today’s generation of doctors, nurses and other professionals may reflect the social trends towards acceptance. I’m also aware of a couple who, upon moving into a local Catholic senior home, insisted on their right to be recognized and managed to lever the implementation of a non-discrimination policy.

Still, while progress is being made, the quality of LGBT patient care is often left to the whim of the provider. There are also more systemic issues of our own to be resolved. One is a reluctance to be honest about our sexual orientation out of fear we won’t be treated with the same deference as a straight patient. Another is related. Based on that expectation of homophobia, older LGBTs, especially seniors, return to the closet when they visit a doctor’s office or a long-term care facility. An acquaintance of mine, now in a nursing home, fears he’d be discriminated against or harassed if it were known he’s gay. He’s also currently in treatment for geriatric depression. I asked him if his therapist knew that he’s gay. His eyes widened. “I could never tell him that” was the response. 

Meanwhile, with the “Milwaukee Step Out: Walk to Stop Diabetes” coming up on Saturday, Oct. 15, I had a conversation with a friend about the state of that disease in the LGBT community. Since he has diabetes and volunteers for the event, I figured he’d know all the facts and figures. He didn’t. Apparently, no one does. Again, due to a dearth of research and incomplete census data, there is little data available on LGBT diabetes rates other than the fact that they’re high; perhaps as much as 10%. Some of our lifestyle choices are to blame but, again, we’ve failed to be visible enough for our medical services to take notice. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, we celebrate National Coming Out Day. Perhaps this year it’s time to come out as if your health depends on it. Ultimately, it does.


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