LGBTQ Americans are scared to go to the doctor, and it’s completely understandable

Going to the doctor is scary for many people for all sorts of reasons. But a new poll conducted by NPR and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that LGBTQ Americans are still afraid of their doctor, especially in rural areas. 18 percent of LGBTQ Americans don’t make appointments with doctors at all because they’re afraid of discrimination, which is so dangerous.

That said, their fear isn’t totally unfounded. Doctors are people, too, and bias can be real. Last year, the National Institute of Aging found that 50 percent of LGBTQ boomers were still afraid of their doctors.

Most of the recipients in that survey “have spent the majority of their lives concealing their sexual orientation and gender identity from others, including health and social service providers, ever cognizant of their community’s historical experiences of discrimination and victimization.” These are people who grew up with stigma and in smaller, rural communities, that stigma can still exist.

It’s especially hard when one has to educate their own doctor about their lifestyle. For example, many sexually active gay men are increasingly interested in taking PrEP, a drug regimen that a person can take to protect them from getting HIV. It’s 100 percent effective in preventing new HIV transmissions, but some LGBTQ people are wary about asking their doctor for fear of being judged.

Or worse, that their doctor has little to no idea what they’re talking about, which is more common than you might think. Alex Galvan, a 20-year-old from California told NPR about his experience, in which he psyched himself up to ask his doctor about it only to find out his doc was clueless. Galvan said:

“I was kind of scared that he didn’t know what it was, but I was also relieved because I let him do most of the research. Yeah, and then I cried a little bit in the car, because I didn’t know what just had happened and it all kind of blurred together.”

Being scared of bias can put multiple lives in danger, especially when you’re talking about treating STDs or getting the appropriate screenings. This is especially true for transgender people who tend to face more discrimination than anyone else. Tanya Walker told Reuters last year about her experience at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in New York. She had lung cancer and was coughing blood, but her doctor kept asking about her genitals. “It seemed like they weren’t going to treat me unless I told them what genitals I had, I felt cornered,” she said.

Uh, yeah, who wouldn’t be concerned?

There are studies that show some doctors tend to not listen to women’s concerns, in addition to not taking overweight women’s health seriously. If doctors can be sexist and fat shame their patients, they can most definitely discriminate against someone because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Sometimes, TBH, they don’t even know they’re doing it, which can be even worse: Have you ever tried to tell someone with multiple professional degrees that they might be wrong about something they consider themselves experts in? It’s scary AF. It’s one thing when you’re fighting with your accountant uncle about tax reform over the holiday dinner table, it’s another thing to try to stand up to a doctor as a patient, especially as a patient living in communities that don’t empower them to be themselves.

One California pediatrician got so fed up of her LGBTQ patients telling her that they were afraid to go to other doctors that she conducted her own poll to reach out to other doctors in her area. Pediatrician Kathryn Hall told NPR that she reached out to 500 doctors about how to be welcoming to LGBTQ patients. Only 120 responded, but most were more than happy to see LGBTQ patients. She said of her poll:

“I made the bar very, very low because we just didn’t get much education on LGBT health in medical school. That is starting to change. Many of the physicians that I know are LGBT-friendly, but patients don’t know that and are very afraid that they’re being judged.”

She encouraged her participants to put a little pride flag sticker on their door or put an ad out — anything to help LGBTQ patients know that they want to treat them. Still, there has to be a lot of systemic change to make the medical profession more open. A 2016 study out of Stanford University found that over 30 percent of medical students were afraid of coming out in school or during their residencies for fear of discrimination. Mitchell Lunn, MD, a co-author of the study and co-founder of the Stanford Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Medical Education Research Group said in a statement:

“There is still this huge percentage of medical students who are afraid of discrimination in medical school and how it could affect the rest of their careers. We are supposed to be a field that is accepting of people and one that takes care of people regardless of differences, and yet we can’t even do that for people who are part of our own community.”

Until medical schools start making LGBTQ students feel safe and also change curriculums about how to treat LGBTQ patients and concerns specific to them, LGBTQ patients everywhere are at risk. Because equality also means being able to talk to your doctor honestly about your health, no matter who you are.

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