Leading the Way to More Inclusive Health Care

Student advocacy committee wins Community Leader Award for improving how health professionals connect with LGBTQ patients.

By Bev Betkowski

“There’s still work to be done,” said Ian Armstrong, a fourth-year medical student who plans to practise family medicine. A member of the gay community, Armstrong is also one of several medical students who serves on the Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Advocacy Committee in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. The volunteer committee of students organizes an annual health conference and has also spurred change in the medical school curriculum.

For its commitment to raising awareness among health professionals about the LGBTQ community, the group is receiving the 2016 Community Leader Award as part of the U of A Community Connections Awards.

The Community Leader Award recognizes an individual or team of U of A employees, post-doctoral fellows or students who have made a valuable contribution to bridging the university’s commitment to learning, discovery and citizenship with the community. The group will be recognized at a ceremony at Edmonton City Hall at noon on May 2, along with two other recipients: nutrition professors Rhonda Bell and Catherine Chan, winners of the Community Scholar Award; and the communications firm Calder Bateman, this year’s UAlberta Advocate winner. Everyone is invited to attend the awards ceremony.

The Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Advocacy Committee was founded by a handful of U of A medical students in 2010, to create safe spaces for and within medical school for LGBTQ students.

Over the years, students began to notice gaps in their classes about sexual orientation and gender identity awareness. Classes in endocrinology, for instance, lacked any information about hormonal treatment for transgender people.

“We weren’t getting the education we knew was out there,” said Jocelyn Andruko, who plans to specialize in emergency medicine and is current president of the committee. “We wanted to learn how, as physicians, to develop an inclusive mindset so that we are treating the whole patient.”

“It’s important for physicians to have that understanding,” Armstrong added. “If patients are comfortable with their doctors, they’ll be willing to talk about sensitive topics.”

Studies show that Canadian LGBTQ patients are less likely to have a regular health-care provider, and among transgender persons, 21 per cent avoid emergency room care, and another 52 per cent report negative ER experiences.

“It’s important that a patient feels accepted by their health-care provider,” Andruko said.

To foster a more inclusive vision of health, the Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Advocacy Committee began taking action on two fronts. The first is by hosting a yearly conference for health professionals, which began in 2014. The conferences educate the medical community about the unique challenges of LGBTQ health and provide the communications tools health-care providers need to connect with their patients. The first year drew 50 participants; in 2016, 169 people attended. In 2014, the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, recognizing the value of the initiative, provided a $100,000 grant to support the conference into future years.

“It started out small; we didn’t expect it to blossom the way it did,” said Armstrong. With a mix of health-care professionals, students from medicine and nursing (and more recently, other disciplines like psychology), and community members both gay and straight, the conferences are sometimes the first opportunity various professionals have to share ideas about collectively serving the LGBTQ population.

“It’s a great networking opportunity for professionals to learn where they can refer their patients for a variety of needs,” Armstrong said. “And it helps community members feel that their physicians are on board with them.”

The committee has also helped revamp classroom curriculum in reproductive health, sexual health, psychiatry and endocrinology, giving future physicians a successful blueprint for how to treat LGBTQ patients effectively in terms of overall health, while respecting their identity and dignity.

The committee’s outreach work gives health-care providers a chance to examine their attitudes about the LGBTQ population, and to develop better awareness of health issues—both physical and mental—that may be unique to patients.

“We want to give people a deeper understanding of subconscious prejudices they may have and how it affects others,” Armstrong said. “We try to develop the skills they need to talk to their patients—the right questions to ask and how to ask them sensitively. It’s about understanding what issues are there and what they as professionals can offer the patient.”

Though some of them are shouldering up to 80-hour weeks on top of their volunteer work, the students are nonetheless passionate about what the committee is doing to build understanding in the medical community.

“It makes me feel better,” said Andruko. “It’s not that workers in the health-care system are bad people, it’s just that they’re not informed. Our work really helps them to help their patients.”

The committee plans to continue tackling emerging issues through the yearly conferences, including care for transgender children, discussion about new proactive HIV treatments and how to serve non-traditional families.

Receiving a Community Connections Award is a particularly gratifying honour because it speaks to the value of the committee’s work, Andruko noted.

“All of our work has been with our health-sciences group and it’s nice to be recognized elsewhere. It reinforces that our work is of value to everyone, not just one segment of society.”

Source: University of Alberta