Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) populations face significant social stigmatization, discrimination, and marginalization that contribute to negative patient outcomes. Consequently, the LGBT population experiences high rates of mental health issues, such as suicide and depression, as well as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness.1,2
According to the CDC, gay men are at highest risk and have increased incidences of gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, human papilloma virus (HPV), and HIV.3 Lesbians and bisexual women are less likely to get preventive cancer screenings, such as Pap smears and mammograms, and have higher incidences of HIV, hepatitis C, self-reported gonorrhea, and are more likely to be overweight or obese.3-6 In addition, LGBT populations have high rates of use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.
The National Transgender Discrimination Survey of 6,450 transgender and nonconforming participants also provides extensive data on the challenges faced by transgender individuals. Discrimination was frequently experienced in accessing health care. Due to their transgender status, 19% were denied care, and 28% postponed care due to perceived harassment and violence within a health care setting.1 The LGBT populations experience personal and structural barriers that interfere with their ability to access high-quality care. Sexual gender minority individuals also experience health care barriers due to isolation, insufficient social services, and a lack of culturally competent providers.4 At the same time, many health care providers (HCPs) experience various barriers to providing LGBT care and need to increase their cultural competence by improving awareness, receptivity, and knowledge.7,8 One personal barrier to quality care is stigmatization toward LGBT persons as expressed through HCP prejudices, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.2 Factors such as gender, race, and religious beliefs also influence attitudes to LGBT health care.
A study by Chapman and colleagues found significant differences in attitudes toward gay men by male and female medical and nursing students.9 Male students had a significantly more negative attitude toward gay men compared with the attitudes of female students. Cultural competence, defined in the study as gay affirmative action principles scores, were statistically significant and strongly correlated with negative attitudes. In this study there also was a statistically significant negative correlation between attitudes and knowledge scores indicating a considerable potential for personal values to influence the provision of health care.9
Various barriers inherent in the health care system restrict access to high-quality care. Institutional barriers that include a lack of legal recognition of same-sex partners, equality in visitation rights, and the ability of same-sex partners to access partner’s medical records hamper health care quality. The HCPs’ lack of knowledge of the health risks or health care needs of the LGBT population also present a structural barrier to quality of care and affects patient outcomes.2
Culturally competent interventions in health care delivery also have been studied to reduce LGBT health disparities. A systematic review of 56 studies by Butler and colleagues found that the term cultural competence was not well defined and often was denoted with the terms patient-centered or individualized care.10 A review on the impact of these interventions in LGBT populations also noted that the long-term effects of culturally competent interventions on health disparities in LGBT populations are still unknown.
The Joint Commission has identified the health and welfare of LGBT populations as a major priority. Beginning in 2012, The Joint Commission started assessing compliance with standards for cultural competence and patient-centered care for LGBT recipients as part of the accreditation criteria.11 The Joint Commission recommended that health care facilities begin to transform the health care environment to be a more welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment for LGBT patients and their families.11 Health care providers can play an important role in reducing the significant health disparities and unequal treatment.12
Improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities are an important part of the HCP’s role. Yet, many HCPs lack the significant knowledge, skills, and cultural competencies needed to provide quality LGBT care.10 Evidence suggests that HCPs continue to receive little or no training to prepare them to manage this vulnerable population.10 Due to the growing evidence of health disparities and negative health outcomes affecting LGBT populations, the federal government has identified LGBT care and patient outcomes as a major health concern and priority under the Healthy 2020 goals.2,4
About 3.5% (9 million) of the U.S. adult population are identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual and 0.3% or 700,000 as transgender.13,14 The VHA serves 9 million veterans at 1,245 facilities.15The 2000 census estimated that about 1 million veterans reported having same-sex partners.16The number of LGBTs in the VHA system is unknown because the VHA has not historically collected LGBT demographic data. The estimation of LGBT veterans that use the VHA is based on a proportion of the population of LGBT military service personnel and may not provide the best representation of LGBT veterans enrolled or seeking care in the VHA.17 By conservative estimates, about 134,000 veterans are thought to be transgender.14 Between 2006 and 2013, the reported prevalence and incidence of transgender-related diagnoses in the VHA have steadily increased with 40% of new diagnoses occurring since 2011.18 In fiscal year 2013, there were 32.9 per 100,000 veterans with transgender-related diagnoses, and the numbers are increasing.18
Because the cooperation of HCPs can play a significant part in reducing health disparities and unequal treatment in the care LGBT patients receive, the VHA launched several initiatives to create a more welcoming, inclusive, and empowering environment for LGBT veterans and families. Among the initiatives, VHA established the Office of Health Equity to address health disparities and ensure that patient-centered care is provided in a positive environment.19,20 The VHA also issued a national directive mandating standardized services be provided for transgender veterans.20
Despite these initiatives, obstacles remain to the delivery of patient-centered LGBT care at the VA. A first step to identifying barriers to patient-centered, high-quality care to LGBT veterans is to evaluate personal and institutional barriers as expressed through HCPs’ preceptions and knowledge about the health of LGBT patients. The magnitude of barriers to providing patient-centered care must first be identified and understood before institutional recommendations can be made and implemented at the facility or national level.