Avoid Presumptions With LGBTQ Patients

Heidi Splete

May 11, 2021

More than 11 million individuals in the United States identify as LGBTQ+, and data show that this population has a shorter life expectancy and increased rates of suicide, violence, and cardiovascular disease, according to Keshav Khanijow, MD, of Northwestern University, Chicago, and Nicole Rosendale, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr Keshav Khanijow

More than half of these individuals report experiencing discrimination, and one in three transgendered individuals have reported prejudice when visiting a doctor or health clinic, they said in a presentation at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

"It is impossible to know how someone identifies by gender just by looking at them," Rosendale emphasized.

However, attention to terminology, use of affirming language and documentation, and attention to clinical considerations can help LGBTQ+ patients feel comfortable in the health care setting.

Ask, Don't Assume

Do ask patients how they identify themselves, Khanijow said. It is important to ask about sexual orientation as part of a social history. One big "Don't" in terminology is to avoid the use of the term "homosexual," he added. Although the description "homosexual" began as a scientific term, it has become associated with pathology, rather than identity, and is often used by hate groups. Also, do not assume sexual orientation based on a patient's partner.

Always ask about sexual orientation before assuming it, and include that information in documentation. Khanijow used an example of a "one-liner" case of a 45-year-old male who self-identifies as "queer" and presents with a migraine. The most appropriate version would be "45yoM who identifies as queer with PMHx Migraines presents with Headache," Khanijow said. However, as a clinician, consider why you are including sexual orientation in the one-liner. If there isn't any real reason to include it (such as stress related to coming out, increased risk for other conditions) it may not be necessary in all visits.

Transgender Considerations

Khanijow shared some specific considerations for the transgender/nonbinary population.

In terms of gender, "it is most respectful to identify the patient as they would like to be identified," he said.

Ask how they identify their gender, including their preferred pronouns, and be sure to note this identification in their documents, he said. Be vigilant in addressing a transgender patient correctly. Mistakes happen, and when they do, correct yourself, apologize succinctly and move on.

Clinical Challenges

Research on LGBTQ+ health is limited, and these individuals are often grouped into a single category despite diverse experiences, Rosendale said. Another limitation in LGBTQ+ research is that some studies assess based on identity (such as gay, lesbian, bisexual) while others assess behavior (studies of men who have sex with men).

Rosendale went on to highlight several important clinical concerns for the LGBTQ+ population. Compared with the general population, lesbian women are at higher risk for breast cancer, and gay men are at increased risk for prostate, colon, and testicular cancers. Potential heart disease risk factors of physical inactivity, obesity, and smoking are more prevalent among lesbian women, and tobacco and alcohol use are more prevalent among gay men, and men who have sex with men are at increased risk for STIs.

Clinicians also should be aware that "bisexual individuals face worse health outcomes than their lesbian, gay, and heterosexual counterparts," Rosendale said.

LGBTQ+ patients often use hormone therapy, so clinicians should be aware of some potential adverse effects, Rosendale said. For example, trans women on gender-affirming estrogen therapy may have increased cardiovascular risks including incident MI, ischemic stroke, and cardiovascular mortality, compared with cisgender women.

In trans men, testosterone use has not been definitively linked to cardiovascular risk, although patients may show small changes in systolic blood pressure, lipid profiles, and blood glucose, Rosendale noted.

In-Hospital Issues

Inpatient and critical care of transgender and LGBTQ+ patients may have unique psychosocial considerations in hospital care, Rosendale said. To provide some guidance, a document on "Transgender-Affirming Hospital Policies" has been developed jointly by Lamda Legal, the Human Rights Campaign, the law firm of Hogan Lovells, and the New York City Bar.

Best practices noted in the document include rooming transgender individuals according to their identity, and recognizing that these patients may experience additional stress while an inpatient if personal clothing or other means of gender expression are replaced during the hospital stay, Rosendale noted.

Finally, clinicians seeing LGBTQ+ patients in an acute care setting should keep in mind that socioeconomic disparities may limit access to outpatient care, and that this population has higher rates of unemployment, exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Rosendale said. In addition, she advised clinicians to be aware that LGBTQ+ people may experience discrimination in rehabilitation centers, and their surrogate decision makers may be individuals other than family members.

Khanijow and Rosendale had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

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