LGBTQ Healthcare: There Is Reason to Be Hopeful

Don S. Dizon, MD


December 06, 2021

I write a lot about watershed moments in my career, things that proved to be moments of tremendous growth, as a person and as a doctor.

One of these occurred early in my career when I met a new patient with ovarian cancer. When I walked into the exam room, I made eye contact with the woman who was accompanied by a man. I assumed they were married, so I went to her first. I introduced myself, stating that I was here to talk about how best to treat her cancer. She stopped me quickly. "Doctor, I am not the patient," she said. "He is."

It was the first time I had cared for a transgender man with ovarian cancer. I recall how awkward the following moments were — for all of us. It was the first time I realized that cancer does not have a gender. Men can get breast cancer. Trans women can get prostate cancer. Trans men can get ovarian cancer.

But even many years later, we are not much further along in how prepared we are as a medical community to care for LGBTQ persons. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are not part of the normal medical school curriculum. For most medical students, LGBTQ health is still approached as an aside — perhaps during an infectious disease clerkship, while learning about STDs and HIV. Students do not learn how to approach the male couple seeking to become parents, STD risk reduction for gays and lesbians, or the trans man with ovarian cancer.

But they should, particularly in light of a 2015 study evaluating bias among US medical students. The analysis found that about 45% of medical students exhibited explicit bias against LGBTQ individuals and 8 in 10 held an implicit bias. Fewer than 20% showed no evidence of bias. This lack of preparedness to treat LGBTQ individuals against a backdrop of bias in the medical community often leads patients to mistrust medicine.

To gain perspective outside of oncology, I spoke to Michelle Forcier (she/they), MD, MPH, assistant dean of admissions and professor of pediatrics at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island. Forcier agreed that "LGBTQ/rainbow health has been harmfully treated by the system, by both intention and by ignorance."

"I have had patients who report that EMTs have tried to look under their clothes to determine their gender and transgender patients who have asked point blank to show a provider the results of gender reassignment surgery, not because it was relevant to the issue at hand, but purely out of curiosity," Forcier continued. "Then there are the patients who are addressed by the name on their legal record rather than the name that reflects their actual lived experience and identity. These experiences foster this anticipation that is pervasive in this community, that something will be said or done that doesn't fit who they are, and that ultimately will out them as 'other.'"

I have also felt this sense of being "other" — something I thought I would be immune to as a physician. I have been asked on multiple occasions what my wife does for a living. Moments like this are always awkward. I'm either forced to come out of the closet yet again, or answer vaguely, as if I should be ashamed of my sexuality.

So, how can we move toward equity? Forcier explained how she lays the groundwork early. "I love pediatrics because kids know when you are being authentic," she said. "I say who I am, I use she/they pronouns. I also teach by example. If there are more than just my patient in a room, I say, 'Let's go around the room and introduce ourselves' so all have a chance to tell me who they are and how they have come together. If it's not clear to me, sometimes I prod, 'How are you here to support [the patient]?'"

The point, according to Forcier: Don't make assumptions about relationships when you walk into a room with more than one person. Don't even make assumptions about who the patient is.

But bringing up gender and sexuality can be awkward. Even I sometimes have a hard time. In oncology, patients are there to talk about their cancer and what can be done about it.

"I think it's really about how it's framed," Forcier said. "In pediatrics, I might start by prefacing it with 'I am going to ask you some personal questions, and it might seem invasive, but it's important for your healthcare. How do you see yourself in the world? What gender identity fits you the best? Who are you attracted to?' And then I shut up. Doctors need to learn how to stop and wait, provide the space to answer."

I can see why understanding our patients more deeply is important. We treat people with cancer, not cancer people. As such, understanding someone more fully includes being cognizant of how they identify.

"I am continuously inspired by my LGBTQ patients who have fought to realize who they are and become their truer selves," Forcier told me. "They know who they are, and they know what they need. They have learned to demand it, to demand that their rights be respected — both civil and human rights."

As we look toward a future in medicine where diversity, equity, and inclusion have gained prominence and urgency, I think there is reason to be hopeful. In oncology, one institutional study published in 2017 found that although only about a third of practicing clinicians surveyed were comfortable treating LGBTQ patients, 92% of them acknowledged our unique needs, 78% wanted more education on how to appropriately care for our community, and 64% wanted to be listed as an LGBTQ-friendly provider.

"As an optimist, I believe that those struggling with homophobia/transphobia are open to doing things better," Forcier said. "After all, we all strive to be better doctors. Whether explicit or implicit bias is at play, turning moments where colleagues are being inappropriate and showing them an alternative, more inclusive way to handle things is one mechanism to educate, rather than to shame. The bottom line is simple: You don't have to be perfect. You just have to try."

Don S. Dizon, MD, is the director of women's cancers at Lifespan Cancer Institute and director of medical oncology at Rhode Island Hospital. He is also a professor of medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. His research interests are in novel treatments of women's cancers and issues related to survivorship, particularly as they relate to sexual health after cancer for both men and women.

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