UCSF Provides 'Oasis of Openness' at LGBTI Forum

Panel guests share their experiences with LGBTI-related bias as patients at the first LGBTI health forum, from left Shane Snowdon, director of the LGBTI Center at UCSF, Michael Scarce and Dani Behonick.

More than 150 students from UCSF and 17 other graduate health schools in California attended a ground-breaking Forum on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Health Issues recently. Coordinated by the UCSF LGBT Resource Center and the LGBT Student Association (LGBTSA), the forum, the first of its kind in the world, attracted remarkably diverse attendees. Medical and nursing students were most numerous, but more than half the participants were students in other fields, including dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, public health, and social work. In addition, 47 percent of the attendees identified themselves as students of color. Forum participants were proud of the diversity and historic nature of the gathering. One attendee called it “truly a momentous event,” and added, “The professions vary in tolerance and affirmation of LGBTI people and concerns. For those of us in the more conservative fields, UCSF provides a much-needed oasis of openness, and serves as a model from which we can bring change back to our home institutions.”

Kate O’Hanlan, MD, former president of the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, and “out” lesbian surgeon, addresses the UCSF community with the first evidence-based presentation of LGBTI health.

That, says LGBT Center Director Shane Snowdon, is exactly what the forum coordinators had in mind when they decided to expand UCSF‘s annual interprofessional elective in LGBTI health into a statewide conference, open to all graduate health students without charge. “Literally minutes after we sent out the first forum publicity, we were deluged with requests to attend. As a longtime LGBTI health advocate, I was absolutely delighted by the response,” she says. The forum opened with an overview of LGBTI health concerns by “out” lesbian surgeon Kate O’Hanlan, MD, former president of the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association. Many non-UCSF attendees said that it was the first time they had heard an evidence-based presentation on LGBTI health, and vowed to encourage their own schools to include LGBTI concerns in the curriculum. O’Hanlan was followed by a panel of patients who described situations in which they experienced substandard care because of LGBTI-related bias, discomfort, or lack of knowledge on the part of health professionals. The panelists’ openness touched many of the attendees, who described the session as “powerful,” “moving,” and “intimate.” As one student put it, “The panel ‘3D-ized’ LGBTI health—it will make a big difference to how I approach patients.” Attendees were then offered a choice of workshops on key aspects of LGBTI health, including sessions on each group represented in the “LGBTI” acronym. Additional workshops focused on mental health, substance use, and the concerns of LGBTI youth, elders, and parents. Presenters discussed particular health risks and disparities experienced by LGBTI people, barriers they face in accessing care, and techniques for relating to them knowledgeably, sensitively, and comfortably. “As more and more health professionals get this information,” notes Snowdon, “LGBTI patients will delay and avoid care less and less—and have much more rewarding interactions with the health care system.”

From left, Meghan (Meggie) Woods, a first-year medical student at UCSF, and Swati Rao, a fourth-year medical student at UC San Diego, talk with presenter Kate O’Hanlan after the LGBTI health forum at UCSF.

The benefits of the forum were wide-ranging, participants indicated. Many echoed a student who said, “I feel much more comfortable with my ability to provide comprehensive LGBTI care.” The event also heightened many attendees’ commitment to providing culturally competent care in general. Said one student, “This really reminded me that the white coat comes with a responsibility to be conscious and ethical about how you use power.” Added another, “I will be a much more sensitive provider.” A number of attendees indicated that they will do additional work in LGBTI health. “I am interested in research,” noted one, “and this has prompted me to do analysis and evaluation of data from LGBTI groups.” Others emerged with a strong desire to educate other students: “I want to spread this knowledge much more actively and remain proactive with my own education.” Many participants said that the forum would help them in situations where they witness LGBTI-related bias. “The forum will make me more confident when I see discrimination against this group,” noted one. She added, “It will also make me able to talk more knowledgeably to my friends and family about these issues, and raise their awareness.” Attendees who are LGBTI themselves also found much of value in the Forum. Said one, “I didn’t realize how ignorant I was about my own health—and I felt so much support for LGBTI health professionals.” Another noted, “I am reminded again of the importance of being out, and of speaking out and advocating.” Participants repeatedly emphasized the Forum’s personal impact, calling it “motivating,” “empowering,” “phenomenal,” and “exciting.” Many echoed a student who noted simply, “I was inspired to make a difference.” Even the forum’s organizers and presenters were moved by the event. As Snowdon observed, “Many of us grew up in a world where coming out to a health care professional, or even being one, was inconceivable. It gives us tremendous hope to see the kind of caring and commitment that the forum evoked.” The forum received lead funding from Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights and The California Endowment. Additional support was received from UCSF Student Academic Affairs, the UCSF Office of Student Life, and the UCSF Office of Academic Diversity.

Photos by Susan Merrell

Related Link:

UCSF LGBT Resource Center