Why doctors should ask you about your sexuality

NHS England has announced that medical professionals will now be able to ask patients over the age of 16 important questions about their sexuality. This will help the NHS provide better care for vulnerable people, improve our insights into LGBT people in society and has many more benefits.

Unfortunately, there has been a backlash to the findings with many people worried about its intrusiveness and straight people outraged that their sexuality is not going to be treated as the default setting in the GPs office. However, there are many reasons why doctors should be asking these questions.

These statistics are badly needed. There is very little large-scale monitoring of the relationship between sexuality and medical conditions. Matthew Todd, in his book Straight Jacket, talks about how this lack of data is holding back important care for LGBT people.

As a community, we are disproportionately more likely to suffer from a variety of medical issues, including mental health conditions, drug and alcohol dependency, sexual health conditions and loneliness, yet these go unrecorded.

A lot of the backlash claims that people’s sexuality does not matter and that medical care should be the same for everyone. Nonetheless, being gay, bisexual, lesbian or a different sexual orientation can be significant in a person’s life story and medical needs. At the moment, anecdotal evidence is the bulk of what we have, which means it is not taken as seriously in government and NHS planning.

The LGBT Foundation found that LGB people are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts or make attempts than heterosexual people and are two to three times more likely to suffer from depression.

A third of gay or bisexual men that used healthcare services in the previous year reported a negative experience regarding their sexual orientation. This clearly shows that something needs to change and greater awareness of the unique needs of their patients could help well-trained and tolerant doctors offer a better service.

Another benefit of this policy will directly help LGBT people. It takes the burden of disclosing their sexuality away from the patient. Approaching a medical professional about anything sexual health related is a daunting and worrying experience for most LGBT people. Just like with everyone else in society that you interact with, you have to look for clues as to how they will react and prepare yourself for the worst.

As a gay man, I believe that doctors should be asking patients important questions about their sexuality.
If the doctor asks the question first, it may diffuse this tension and help make the patient more comfortable being open about their own experience and medical needs. Some people may find it intrusive, but for the people that are directly affected, it could be a huge relief.

For example, I would have preferred this system in many of my medical interactions. When I went for my first every sexual health test, an important thing for all LGBT people, it was a nerve-wracking experience. I was asked to fill out a series of forms and disclose a range of personal things, including medical history, gender and sexual history.

When I handed back my form and fidgeted anxiously, I noticed that a group of members of staff had congregated and were talking in hushed tones. One of the receptionists called me back to the desk with a confused expression and asked me to double check my form. I confirmed that I had indeed intended to check the MSM (men who have sex with men) box.

It was like a red klaxon had gone off in the hospital and they ushered me quickly into an appointment where I was asked far more intrusive questions. The way I was treated was heavily influenced by my sexuality and it was an overwhelmingly negative experience.

To make the monitoring of sexuality more routine will help desensitise medical professionals to the stigma. It will help them treat LGBT people more appropriately, rather than the hysterical way they acted towards me, as if I was automatically diseased and an urgent case. For people with HIV, drug dependency or serious mental health conditions, an inappropriate response can be disastrous.

Of course, it needs proper safeguards. Data protection concerns are a valid concern, but should not count against this policy in principle. Any insecure data, especially medical records, is a cause for concern. More important, is the training needed of medical conditions so that they do not discriminate against LGBT people and act appropriately. The NHS must also ensure that there is no disclosure to third parties that would involuntarily out people.

This policy is a promising step for the medical care for people that have unique needs because of their sexuality. I am particularly happy that will apply to people over the age of 16 as this is a formative period for young lesbian, gay and bisexual people. If they are supported during this period when they may be coming to terms with their sexuality, then they are much more likely to grow up to be healthy adults.

The reaction has been grossly overstated. The number of straight people complaining about this policy is ludicrous. It is not a great burden for them. Their anguish at having to explain their sexuality is something faced by LGBT people in every encounter with a new person. This is surely something that LGBT people should decide that they want. It is mainly intrusive for us as straight people are seen as the norm within society. However, I genuinely believe the benefits outweigh the uncomfortable nature of the question for some people.

If you feel uncomfortable, please just use your right to not answer the question. NHS trusts even have an opt-out option. However, I hope they don’t use it because this undermines the value of getting a comprehensive set of statistics. They certainly shouldn’t bend to an unfair backlash.

The Daily Mail article about this news is particularly inflammatory. They quoted Dr Peter Swinyard, chairman of the Family Doctor Association. He said that ‘We are at risk of becoming state apparatchiks, asking questions about patients’ sexuality, housing, whether they can cook, or do crochet!’

This is an absurd statement. The only question that is being asked is sexuality and that is medically relevant and being asked to help people who do not get sufficient care. It also abuses the offensive and common slippery slope fallacy. This is normally used to obstruct gay marriage or adoption, claiming that if these are introduced people will soon be able to marry their family members, pets or inanimate objects.

The comments are filled with outrage from heterosexual people complaining that they don’t care about sexuality. However, lesbian, bisexual and gay people still suffer disproportionately from a range of potentially life-threatening medical conditions. Let’s learn more about them, figure out strategies for the whole of society and intervene more effectively. Save lives and treat LGBT people with respect and the NHS they deserve.
Why doctors should ask you about your sexuality Why doctors should ask you about your sexuality Reviewed by Ciaran McCormick on 12:39 Rating: 5

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