May 22, 2013 | by Daniel O'Neill
Curbing LGBT health disparities

We are on the verge of realizing a healthcare system in which all providers, whether they identify as LGBT or not, are better educated about the unique health needs of our community and how to appropriately address and screen for the health challenges that LGBT people face.

In January, the National Institutes of Health released a groundbreaking report, based on recommendations from the Institutes of Medicine’s 2011 “The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding,” outlining a strategy to support research to increase the knowledge base for promoting the health of the LGBT community. The Department of Health and Human Services has also begun collecting LGBT health data through the National Health Interview Survey, with release of preliminary raw data due out later this summer.

These efforts will develop the evidence base needed to drive changes in policy, funding streams and public health efforts to curb LGBT health disparities. However, there must be a commensurate increase in agents of such change through expanded education to develop health professionals competent in delivering LGBT-sensitive care.

On this count, back in 2011, a study conducted by the Stanford School of Medicine and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that a majority of American and Canadian medical schools lacked LGBT-related health curricula in the classroom and in clinical training. The 132 deans (75 percent of those queried) responding to the survey reported a median time dedicated to LGBT-related content of only five hours for their entire four-year medical school curricula, with many reporting no dedicated time at all.

In response to these findings, numerous medical schools and other health professional programs throughout the country have since revamped their human sexuality curricula, often with input from LGBT students.

Locally, the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences has made tremendous strides on this front. Not only does the program employ a number of out LGB faculty and hospital attendings and provide a robust, extensive and updated human sexuality module for its medical and physician assistant students, but also GW Hospital has been working to forge an increasingly strong relationship with Whitman-Walker Health over the past several years.

The newly appointed Dean of the GWU School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Jeffrey Akman, is gay and has worked tirelessly on behalf of the local LGBT community during his nearly 30-year tenure as a psychiatrist for the hospital. His plan for the coming years includes a “key priority” of further expansion of diversity in health professional training.

GW is also the newest of only several universities in the country to create a graduate level certificate program in LGBT health, which was launched earlier this spring and is still accepting applications for the coming year.

Spearheaded by Dr. Stephen Forssell and housed in the Department of Professional Psychology, this multidisciplinary, year-long, 12-credit program with faculty from the fields of medicine, psychology, public policy and law, aims to distinguish itself from the two other existing programs in several ways. It will use a “hybrid” approach of both online and classroom learning with an unmatched degree of exposure to public policy, given the program’s position in D.C.

Importantly, a required component of the program will be a capstone project allowing students to apply their skills to address LGBT health disparities. As such, students will gain hands-on training that will positively impact the health of LGBT people in a variety of settings. With its strong focus on applied care, the program is geared primarily toward those who work on the front lines with clients and patients and professionals in policy and healthcare system delivery and management.

Already the program has received applications from a diverse spectrum of individuals, including dancers, physicians, public health officials and lawyers, from throughout the country and the world – even as far away as Uganda.

Since we are finally developing the evidence base needed to address the health problems most impacting our community, we now must ensure our future health workforce is capable of acting on this new information. Given the recent steps taken by many graduate training programs, including GWU, I am encouraged about the progress being made thus far.

For those interested in more information on the new GWU LGBT health graduate certificate or who would like to apply, visit: http://programs.columbian.gwu.edu/lgbt.

Daniel Fredrick O’Neill completed his medical doctorate from GWU this month and will pursue his internal medicine residency at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle.

1 Comment
  • Peter rosenstein

    Great column and great opportunities at GW. Along with getting his medical degree Dan O’Neill has worked tirelessly for the LGBT community in DC for many years. He deserves both our congratulations and thanks.

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