Doctors shouldn’t be afraid to ask about patients’ sexual orientation, gender identity

Male doctor in white lab coat
Doctors should ask patients about their sexual orientation so they can better address their specific medical needs.

Knowledge is power and that is true when it comes to doctors and their ability to treat patients if they know their sexual orientation and gender identity.

When physicians are told patients are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight, it helps them better address their specific medical needs and creates more trusting relationships, according to Medical Economics.

Michael Mencias, M.D., hospice medical director at MJHS in Brooklyn, told the publication that when he treated a gay patient who was the victim of a hate crime and suffered a traumatic brain injury, the care team was able to provide and recommend specific social services to help. That knowledge can also influence the conversation about a range of topics from risk-appropriate screening for sexually transmitted infections to contraception.

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To encourage this open communication, the article recommends that physicians: 

Ask patients about their sexual orientation. You can make it clear that you ask the question of every patient so patients don’t think you are discriminating. Don’t force the issue if a patient declines to answer, says Mencias. But a study released earlier this year found that healthcare providers greatly underestimate patients' willingness to disclose their sexual orientation. While nearly 80% of healthcare professionals believed patients would refuse to provide information about their sexual identity, in reality, only 10.3% of patients reported they would not provide the information if asked.

Encourage patients to talk honestly and openly, so you can provide the best care to them. Keep in mind that younger patients just acknowledging their sexual identity or those who have not come out to family may be less truthful. Also be aware that LGBT patients are often susceptible to health issues such as depression and substance abuse.

Create a welcoming environment to encourage patients to share information. Gender-neutral bathrooms or brochures that say you are LGBT friendly can convey that message.