As a gay man, Austin Nation, PhD, RN, PHN, understands the health care barriers faced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) patients. As a nurse and educator, he’s working to increase awareness and address the health disparities that continue to exist in the LGBTQ community.
An assistant professor of nursing at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), Nation lived through the 1980s AIDS crisis, and has worked with many patients in the HIV/AIDS community. While he acknowledges an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence thanks to increased funding and better treatment, Nation has also seen how young gay black and Latino men continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 1 in 2 black men and 1 in 4 Latino men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime.
“We’re not reaching all of the people we need to reach,” Nation says. “In order to get to zero new HIV infections, we need to figure out how to engage these populations.”
While treatments have transformed HIV into a chronic but manageable illness, many people are not aware of how prevention efforts that use antiretroviral treatment, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PReP), an HIV-medication that when taken consistently, can lower the risk of getting infected by more than 90%. Despite being widely available, the CDC notes that while two-thirds of the people who could benefit from PrEP are black or Latino, they account for the smallest amount of prescriptions to date.
To that end, Nation has worked to address the tenuous relationship many people of color and members of the LGBTQ community have with the health care system. Statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that LGBTQ patients often face challenges and barriers in accessing health services including stigma, discrimination, the provision of substandard care, and outright denial of care because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“I’ve led LGBTQ cultural competency trainings to teach nurses and nursing students how to provide inclusive services and care for LGBTQ patients,” Nation says. “By knowing whether a patient is gay, lesbian, transgender, straight, or bisexual, and how to best communicate, nurses can identify potential health disparities and care for their patients more effectively.”
On the CSUF campus, Nation has also been a part of the university’s Faculty Noon Time Talks, discussing health care disparities within the African American community. In addition, he is working with faith leaders to adopt a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ individuals who may be reluctant to come out and subsequently don’t receive HIV testing or prevention counseling.
“I also teach a public health course at CSUF where we discuss vulnerable patient populations including the LGBTQ community,” Nation says. “I try to integrate real-world experiences into the course curriculum.”
Nation believes that all nurses can help to achieve diversity and meaningful inclusion, whether they are part of the LGBTQ community or an ally. “Have a voice and be an advocate,” he says. “One person can make a difference.”
Navigating Cancer Care with LGBTQ Patients
As an oncology nurse and LGBTQ advocate, Megan Ober, RN, MS, BSN, OCN, a case manager at the Palliative Care Clinic at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in Davis, California, often finds herself bridging the gap between providers and LGBTQ patients.
“Many health care providers work under the assumption that all patients are heterosexual,” says Ober. “It’s important to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ patients in order to educate them on cancer risk factors and ensure they receive preventative screenings.”
Ober says LGBTQ patients often feel they are being judged and are reluctant to share their sexual orientation or gender identity out of fear of being turned away from health care providers. This distrust can lead to some LGBTQ not seeing a doctor regularly for check-ups and screenings, delaying diagnoses and not receiving information on treatments that might help either their physical or emotional health.
Over the years, Ober has given presentations to staff on LGBTQ disparities in cancer care and risk factors that lead to greater cancer incidence and later-stage diagnoses. These disparities include:
- Anal cancer. It’s rare in the general population, but 34 times more prevalent in gay men.
- Cancer screenings. According to the American Cancer Society, lesbians and bisexual women get less routine health screenings than other women including breast, colon, and cervical cancer screening tests.
- Breast cancer. Lesbian women have higher rates for breast cancer including nulliparity (never having given birth), alcohol and tobacco use, and obesity.
- Cervical cancer in transgender men. Since most transgender men retain their cervixes, they are also at risk of cervical cancer but are much less likely to obtain Pap smears and regular cancer screenings.
Resources to Bring Better Care to LGBTQ Patients
For nurses who want to educate themselves further about LGBTQ health topics, the following information can help:
- Lavender Health has held virtual coffee hours for nurses working with LGBTQ populations. Their website offers events, resources, and more to help both providers and members of the LGBTQ community promote wellness.
- The National Resource Center on LGBT Aging offers cultural competency training for staff at nursing homes and others who care for seniors. They also have downloadable guides on creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ seniors.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a free downloadable guide, Top Health Issues for LGBT Populations Information and Resource Kit.
- On a national level, organizations such as the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD) has partnered with the Health Resources and Services Administration’s HIV/AIDS Bureau (HRSA-HAB) to launch HisHealth.org, a free online tool that helps nurses and other medical staff learn how to engage HIV-positive young black LGBTQ patients and young black transgender patients by taking a whole-health approach to wellness.
- Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and their Healthcare Equality Index can help with training and best practices such as making changes to electronic medical records and hospital paperwork to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity and criteria that hospitals can use to become Equality Leaders.
- The National LGBT Health Education Center has a free downloadable guide, “Providing Inclusive Services and Care for LGBT People: A Guide for Health Care Staff.” The guide discusses using preferred pronouns and preferred names, understanding diversity and fluidity of expression, making LGBTQ patients feel comfortable, common health issues among the LGBTQ population, and much more.
While it can be difficult for nurses to begin a conversation about a patient’s sexuality and sexual health, Ober says it’s important for providers to ask in order to care appropriately for LGBTQ patients.
“Rather than assuming all patients are heterosexual, I recommend nurses introduce themselves and ask a patient how they would like to be addressed, their chosen name, and their preferred pronoun,” Ober says. “There’s a great training video on YouTube called ‘To Treat Me You Have to Know Who I Am’ that showcases a mandatory employee training program that was launched for health care providers in New York.”
Ober also cautions against assuming the personal info on a patient’s chart is correct. Often, people who are transgender may identify as a different gender than the one listed on their electronic medical record.
“Rather than greeting a patient with a title such as Mr. or Ms., I encourage nurses to ask patients how they would like to be addressed,” Ober says. “Shifting from a heteronormative model to one that is more inclusive acknowledges that patients and families aren’t all the same. The woman sitting by your patient’s bedside may be her wife, rather than her sister or friend.”
Nurses Lead the Way with Change
Caitlin Stover, PhD, RN, chair of the national Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) Nursing group says both nurses who identify as LGBTQ and those who are allies can work to create an inclusive environment for LGBTQ patients.
“I’m an ally that joined GLMA and now I’m chair of the organization,” Stover says. “There are so many resources out there that can help nurses become better patient advocates and deliver culturally sensitive care to LGBTQ patients.”
Stover says while many nurses across the country are doing great work in creating an inclusive environment in their hospital units and establishing trust and rapport with LGBTQ patients, there are still many nurses and providers who have not received education on LGBTQ health issues.
“It’s important for nurses to strip themselves of preconceived notions, judgements, and assumptions,” Stover says. “Our job is to provide the best possible care, regardless of a patient’s age, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.”
She cites the Guidelines for Care of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Patients downloadable PDF created by GLMA as a good starting point for nurses who are seeking advice on how to communicate with LGBTQ patients using sensitive language. The document also includes guidelines for forms, patient-provider discussions, and more.
Continued Education Leads to Better Health Outcomes
Learning about LGBTQ patients isn’t a topic that is always covered in nursing school. A national survey conducted in 2014 found that 43% of nursing faculty who taught in bachelor’s degree programs across the United States reported limited or somewhat limited knowledge of LGBTQ health. Between 23-63% of respondents indicated either never or seldom teaching LGBTQ health, although a majority of respondents felt LGBTQ health should be integrated into the nursing courses they teach.
In 2013, Columbia University Medical Center in New York launched the LGBT Health Initiative, based at the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry in association with the Columbia University School of Nursing. The goal of the initiative is to bring together research, clinical care, education, and policy to fight stigma and improve the health of the LGBTQ community.
Janejira J. Chaiyasit, DNP, AGNP-C, an assistant professor at Columbia University School of Nursing and a nurse practitioner at ColumbiaDoctors Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Group, says students at the Columbia School of Nursing receive training on LGBTQ cultural competency as part of their studies.
“We highlight the unique health disparities, risks, and health needs of the LGBTQ patient population to increase awareness, so that our future providers and care takers will offer appropriate care and ask the right questions,” Chaiyasit says.
At Columbia, Chaiyasit has seen how promoting inclusivity and culturally competent care has led to better patient care and health outcomes, and how training staff and students adequately prepares them to care for LGBTQ patients.
“If a patient doesn’t feel comfortable, how can we expect them to divulge their personal health concerns to us, and, in return, enable us to give them the best care?” Chaiyasit says.
And despite progress that has been made nationally, Chaiyasit says there’s a continued need for nurses to learn about the differing health needs of the LGBTQ community.
“LGBTQ patients have a lot of health disparities and changing the preconceptions of health care delivery for this community is a way to close the gaps—reducing ER visits, reducing the time to access health care for medical and psychosocial issues, and increasing the rate of preventative health screenings,” Chaiyasit says. “For example, many health care professionals are unaware of the health needs for trans patients, specifically these patients’ needs for transition-specific hormone therapy care and maintenance to achieve the desired gender features. This is really important as it impacts physical and mental health as a whole.”
In addition to nurses becoming more aware of gender-neutral language, many hospitals have begun customizing their patient intake forms to ensure they are LGBTQ-inclusive.
“At Columbia, we piloted intake form questions, which were ultimately implemented across the Nurse Practice Group, that allow patients to select, or even write in, their preferred gender identity pronouns,” Chaiyasit says. “A complete patient history helps to ensure each patient gets the care and services they need.”