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NIH Takes Important Steps for LGBT Health

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A year ago I wrote a HuffPost blog post decrying the apparent stall in LGBT research integration at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Now I'm happy to say NIH is moving forward with good speed on this topic.

Why is NIH integration of LGBT health research important? Because health research is the only way we'll find answers to the persistent health disparities we see across the LGBT population. Why do we smoke cigarettes at rates that are 68-percent higher than the general population? Can we do anything to protect against the spike in mental health problems after negative legislation is passed in our states? How can transgender people be assured of welcoming health care? What can be done about the high level of social isolation that LGBT elders report? And what can be done about the horrific LGBT youth suicide rates? If data tells the story of our lives, then research is the first step in writing happier endings.

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine released a historic report, "The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People." In it they reviewed the scientific evidence, identified research gaps, and outlined steps to assist NIH in enhancing its efforts in this area. One of the positive steps NIH has since taken in the last year is to finally release a response to this report.

NIH's response nicely included a review of their current research to further identify gaps. From that they tell us "There seems to be relatively little research in several key areas for LGBT populations, including the impact of smoking on health, depression, suicide, cancer, aging, obesity, and alcoholism." They also identify the need to do more research on methods, particularly developing reliable methods for asking if people are LGBT on surveys. As LGBT scientists know, in most of these areas there are many more questions than answers. It would be an absolute boon to start getting those answers.

NIH is also continuing to accept proposals under a new announcement prioritizing LGBTI research (the added "I" standing for "intersex"). This announcement doesn't have funding attached, but it is an important way to publicly say, "We want more research on these subjects." That's also a good step. In their report they also announced that the LGBTI Research Coordinating Committee would become a standing body, "to serve as a catalyst to develop additional research and training initiatives." This is also good news; these internal champions are often key to progress.

The latest of NIH's steps has just been taken this month. They are doing a version of something I suggested in my blog post, namely inviting LGBT scientists to what will be the first-ever LGBT listening session. I am confident that senior NIH officials will be there and expect this to be just the first step in consistent outreach efforts.

Now, NIH can and should absolutely do more. We need investments in career development, because I know I was one of scant few who chose to enter this field during the many years when opportunities were scarce. We also need higher expectations for peer reviewers of LGBT proposals; reviewers with little working knowledge in this area often convey that with the uneven reviews they tender.

But the step taken just this month is really critical. This is the first time NIH has opened a dialogue with a larger group of LGBT scientists. This is where we're going to be able to tell them about what things aren't yet working as hoped, where the welcome is warm versus chilly, and what our work leads us to prioritize as next steps. The interaction between health scientists and NIH is a close dance; we are the biggest experts, they the biggest funder. Opening this line of direct communication between these groups on the topic of LGBT health writ large is a heartening step. So for this Pride Month, I'm absolutely proud of NIH and look forward to the progress in eliminating our health disparities we will jointly achieve.