Creating a Welcoming Space

Rainbow heart

Caring for your patients identifying as sexual and gender minorities

By Stuart Foxman

When it comes to patients identifying as sexual and gender minorities (SGM), what does a welcoming clinical environment look like? It could be one that:

  •  Features displays of openness, e.g. positive space or pride stickers, and all-gender washrooms.
  • Allows for self-disclosure, e.g. patients are asked what name and pronoun they prefer to use, and have the opportunity to state who they are and disclose their gender and sexual orientation.
  • Avoids assumptions, where clinicians appreciate that each patient is unique, and make efforts to know the differences between sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual attraction.
  • Uses open-ended questions about sex, like “How would you describe your sexual orientation?” As opposed to closed-ended questions, like “Are you sexually active with men, women or both?”
Dr. James Owen
Photo: Arash Moallemi

When in doubt, follow the patient’s lead. That matters

Dr. James Owen

Recently, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine developed an infographic to sensitize its medical learners to the needs of the SGM community. Many of these patients self identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).

Although the information relates specifically to serving the SGM community, in many ways the advice comes down to fundamental principles of patient-centred care, says Dr. James Owen.

“These are building blocks to creating inclusive and safe care environments, and showing respect for your patients,” says Dr. Owen, the LGBTQ2S Health Education Theme Lead at the University of Toronto MD Program.

Much of the material in the infographic concerns communication and terminology. Patients from many minority communities self identify with terms you may be unfamiliar with or have context specific meaning. Language evolves over time. ”You should be open to new terms and feel comfortable asking for their meaning,” says Dr. Owen.

For instance, the infographic includes definitions of the acronym LGBTTQQIP2SAA (often abbreviated as LGBTQ+). “When in doubt, follow the patient’s lead. That matters. So does understanding the concepts of sex, gender and sexuality — intertwined yet distinct,” he says.

Sex refers to physical aspects of our body, including genitals, hormones, etc. Gender identity relates to your internal experience of gender, and gender expression to the way you publicly present that identity (including dress and behaviour). And sexual attraction is your desire or interest.

There’s often a need for physician education in these areas. “Historically, we weren’t taught these concepts in medical school,” says Dr. Owen, who’s also a staff physician at the St Michael’s Hospital Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Consider too that sexual preferences, attractions and gender aren’t always static for everyone. An individual’s attraction and gender can be fluid and can evolve over time. This should not in any way invalidate someone’s identity or attraction in the past or present. “Fluidity does not indicate that an individual is confused,” states the infographic.

Assumptions or comments such as “this is just a phase” that someone will “grow out of” (around patients of any age, including children) aren’t appropriate. What is important is respecting the individual and their unique lived experiences, rather than judging and stereotyping.

What happens if your patient reacts negatively to the language you use?

“Have the comfort and rapport to say ‘I may have used the wrong words; how can I have said that better?’ It’s important to have some degree of humility,” says Dr. Owen.

Infographic containing helpful tips when speaking to a patient

The University of Toronto infographic reminds practitioners not to underestimate the weight of their words: “Ask questions that are medically relevant and avoid questions out of curiosity.”

More tips: get to know your patients, appreciate that
some may be sensitive about their bodies, and soften your approach by explaining the purpose of your questions. That’s advisable with any patient. Remember, respecting someone’s right to define themselves means respecting their ways of understanding the world.

Beyond interactions with patients, SGM competencies should extend to colleagues and learners. As Dr. Owen notes, some members of the SGM community have reported negative experiences with their health care. Doctors may think they’re providing proper care, he says. But patients might perceive stigma, insensitivity or outright discrimination. That can affect their care, or lead them to avoid or delay seeking care.

People walking on a rainbow-painted street

To learn much more about the issues, Dr. Owen recommends these resources:

Here are another few useful resources from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC):