New program aims to improve LGBTQ+ health care

MADISON, Wis. — You can probably trace your feelings about health care to the last time you went to the doctor. Was it a good visit, and did you feel seen and heard? Not everyone can say yes, and that can be true for people in the LGBTQ+ community. That’s why a new fellowship program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison could be a game-changer and lead to systemic change in health care.

The goal of seeing a doctor is to leave feeling better. However, depending on who you are, that visit may end up causing even more pain.

“The LGBTQ+ community faces an awful lot of health care disparities both in access to care but also health outcomes,” Dr. Joshua Cohen, with the American Medical Association, said.

It’s an issue that is close to Dr. Joshua Cohen’s heart.

“I’ve witnessed firsthand how members of the community, even just friends and neighbors of mine have been impacted by the lack of good care, the lack of compassionate affirming care,” Cohen said.

A recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that nearly one in five LGBTQ adults have avoided seeking care out of fear of discrimination.

“When you have a system that has disadvantaged people, you need to do more to bring them back to the same level as everybody else,” Cohen said.

Cohen launched a training program to help. The inaugural National LGBTQ+ Fellowship Program at UW-Madison’s School of Public Health and Medicine could help bridge those gaps in health care.

“This is an incredible opportunity for us to become change agents in terms of the landscape and enhancing health equity for the LGBTQ+ population and non binary gender-diverse populations,” Dr. Elizabeth Petty, associate dean of academic affairs at UW School of Medicine and Public Health, said.

The fellowship comes with a $750,000 grant from the AMA Foundation. The goal is to educate physicians on how to care for LGBTQ+ patients.

“We want to train physicians to be able to meet patients where they are and that people can present themselves fully and authentically to their health care providers,” Petty said.

More than that, Cohen says this partnership could be just one step in changing the whole health care system.

“People’s experience with health care in general impacts how they approach health care in the future. When you’ve had a negative experience, it not only impacts your perception of how you’re going to be treated when you’re going to see a physician,” Cohen said.

Petty says the fellowship will hopefully help new doctors dismantle stigmas, stereotypes, and discrimination LGBTQ+ patients may face — which may not always be intentional.

“I think sometimes it does come from a place of people just not knowing and not understanding, and that’s why the education component of this is so important,” Petty said.

And, when it comes to future doctor’s visits, both Petty and Cohen hope this program will be crucial to helping patients heal.

“This has been a vision for so long. It’s been something we’ve been trying to achieve. Now to see it fully actualized is really personally impactful,” Cohen said.