Opinion: LGBTQ population suffers health care disparities

Anthony Williams

LGBTQ organizations and their allies around the country are using this month to remind people across the U.S. of the struggles still faced by the various communities represented in the movement — including battles being waged to earn equal housing protections, job protections and adoption rights.

Participants from Chase Bank walk in the  Motor City Pride Parade.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Equality Act, a bill that would protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, the workplace and public accommodations, but it faces no chance of passing the GOP-led Senate, leaving the bill to languish until at least 2021.

In the meantime, LGBTQ residents in the U.S. face continued discrimination, often with no legal recourse.

On the state level, one positive is that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently announced legislation that would change Michigan’s civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While passage is not a guarantee, this legislation is long overdue and shows the increase among businesses in understanding the importance of diversity in the workplace.

These are all important battles to be waged, just as the battle for same-sex marriage was fought and won in the U.S. after years of effort. Tackling these issues will require a consistent effort from all who support the cause. But one topic in the LGBTQ community that tends to get lost in the shuffle, even amid the public glare of Pride Month, is the health care disparities that continue to affect the community.

Due to a lack of training specific to the population, most primary care physicians are not sufficiently aware of the health issues faced by LGBTQ patients. Here’s what the numbers show:

  • Lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to receive screening for breast and cervical cancer.
  • Elderly LGBTQ persons face additional barriers to health because of isolation and a lack of social services and culturally competent providers.
  • Transgender individuals have a high prevalence of victimization, mental health issues, including suicide, and are less likely to have health insurance.
  • African-American gay and bisexual men are at higher risk for acquiring HIV and STIs than their white counterparts.
  • LGBTQ populations have higher rates of tobacco, alcohol and other drug use.
  • LGBTQ youth are 2-3 times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • LGBTQ youth are more likely to be homeless.

This type of knowledge is not widely taught to medical students, so they often don’t know the right questions to ask to specifically address the needs of the population.

Thankfully, things are starting to change, with Wayne State University beginning to incorporate LGBTQ-specific training in their medical school curriculum, but there is still a long way to go in preparing a new generation of doctors who understand what the needs of the community and how to best address those issues.

In the end, for the proper care to be given, patients and clinicians must both be comfortable discussing all matters relating to their health. Open and honest communication is key. A large part of the reason for these disparities in health care for the LGBTQ population is a lack of trust in the health care system.

As we work to address all the critical battles for civil rights that the LGBTQ community is facing in 2019 during Pride Month and beyond, it’s also urgent that activists and allies continue to push for improved health care access for the members of the LGBTQ community, and proper training in medical schools, so the health disparities of today can one day become a thing of the past.

Anthony Williams is president and CEO of Corktown Health Center, which opened in 2017 and is Michigan’s only health center focused on treatment of the area’s LGBTQ population.