Editorials, Opinion

When health care is more inclusive, it saves more lives

Last week, public health nurses with the Monongalia County Health Department underwent LGBTQ+ “safe zone” training.

The adjacent term “safe space” is too often met with eyerolls and derision, but there should be no safer space than a doctor’s office.  But for members of the LGBTQ+ community, the doctor’s office or the health care clinic isn’t always a place of comfort and healing.

Dr. Mark Schuster, founding dean and CEO of the Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine and a gay man, said it best: “Every time you see a new doctor or nurse, you wonder what the reaction will be and worry about the quality of your care. Will you be discriminated against when you’re sick or sitting in a clinical gown feeling very exposed?”

That fear and anxiety Schuster describes is why the LGBTQ+ safe zone training is so important. We applaud the MCHD and its staff for taking the initiative to make health care in Morgantown more inclusive.

A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that 10% of gay men, 13% of lesbians and 40% of bisexual men don’t disclose their sexual orientation to health care providers. The numbers may seem low, but the fear behind them is prevalent and real. Non-heterosexual individuals face the risk of not being treated with dignity and respect or having their medical needs ignored entirely. They may go in for routine checkups and testing — or even emergency care — and leave with a lecture on their “lifestyle choices” instead of the medical attention they need.

A 2019 Trevor Project study found more than 70% of transgender and non-binary youths won’t disclose their gender identity to health care providers. They may face similar discrimination as their cisgender, non-heterosexual counterparts, but they’re likely to encounter even more barriers. They may not be offered the types of care they actually need or they may be denied needed care altogether.

The 2001 documentary “Southern Comfort” follows the last few months of Robert Eads’ life in 1998. A transgender man, Eads had been discouraged from having his female reproductive organs removed; he transitioned in his 40s and had already started to show signs of menopause. Eads developed cervical cancer in 1996 and was denied care by dozens of doctors in his home state of Georgia. He finally received the surgery to remove his cancer-infected organs as well as radiation treatments in 1997, but by then it was too late. He died in mid-January 1999.

Eads’ story is more than 20 years old, but the challenges he faced are still happening. Just this past year, a transgender man in the UK struggled to get a cervical screening at a hospital — even after his general practitioner explained he was trans — and then had to wait three months instead of the usual two weeks to get his results.

While resistance to care may come from the medical field itself, it can also be difficult for transgender men and non-binary people to accept what is traditionally thought of as “female” health care: It can be a painful reminder that their body does not accurately reflect the person they are. Health care professionals who know how to address this disconnect are more likely to connect their patients to the appropriate medical services.

When health care is an inclusive “safe zone” for LGBTQ+ people, we end up with a healthier and safer community. Morgantown is better for the MCHD’s inclusion efforts.