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When it Comes to Health Care, Lesbians Face Unique Challenges

By Alexa Pozniak
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

When it comes to health care, lesbians face a different set of challenges than heterosexual women, ranging from discrimination to increased risk factors for certain diseases. One local health center, however, is working toward changing that.

Fenway Health, an affiliate of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is an interdisciplinary center located in Boston dedicated to research, training, education, and providing quality care. While it offers services to people of all sexual orientations, it is internationally recognized for its work with the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

According to a study by the Institute of Medicine, lesbians are an underserved population who access health care and preventative screenings far less frequently than heterosexual females. The reason may lie in educational disparities and discrimination among health care providers.

"At the registration desk, if the woman looks 'butch' or someone perceives them as different, the employee may act in a manner that is disrespectful and that discourages them from seeking regular care," explains Judy Bradford, Ph.D., Co-Chair of the Fenway Institute and Director of the Center for Population Research in LGBT Health. "Some doctors and nurses do that too, perhaps without even realizing it. Or they may have never been educated on health issues that affect the lesbian population."

Inequality and discrimination can also take on a more subtle form. Health questionnaires that patients fill out are typically geared toward heterosexuals. And health care providers don't always ask a woman's sexual orientation up front.

"This can be extremely awkward," says Bradford. "It's a barrier that non-lesbians don't have to face. Some women may be embarrassed or uncomfortable bringing it up, which can affect their care."

Although more research is needed, studies show that lesbians have a higher rate of alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, and obesity, which puts them at a greater risk of cancer and heart disease, the number one killer of women in America. According to Bradford, "these conditions are behavioral. Some women may overeat or smoke because of increased stress in their lives, particularly the stress that comes from being a sexual minority."

Lesbians are also found to be at an increased risk of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression, which are oftentimes the result of social stigma, family rejection, or violence.

In addition to ongoing research revolving around the health and well-being of the LGBT population, the Fenway Institute published the nation's first medical textbook focused on the LGBT population with the American College of Physicians, titled "The Fenway Guide to LGBT Health." In a subset of individuals where research has traditionally been lacking, Fenway Health is at the forefront of change.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted September 2011

Contact Information

Fenway Health
1340 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02115
617-267-0900