06/19/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

It's Time to Demand the Health Care We Deserve

Today, an LGBT person will be refused health care because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. It could be you or someone you know and love -- and it could be the difference between life and death. In our community, it is not uncommon to experience different or less-than-adequate health care because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite many advances in health care, many health care providers are still not providing the high-quality, culturally competent health care we LGBT patients need and deserve.

The LGBT community experiences significant health disparities -- and discrimination -- for a wide variety of reasons. A 2009 report by the Center for American Progress, "How to Close the LGBT Health Disparities Gap," analyzed the 2007 California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) and other data relating to LGBT health and revealed disturbing disparities: Nine percent of LGB adults have been diagnosed with cancer, compared with 6 percent of heterosexual adults; LGB adults are more likely to have problems with alcoholism (44 percent to 33 percent); and transgender adults are far more likely to have suicide ideation than non-transgender adults (50 percent to 2 percent).

In addition to experiencing these disparities, a 2009 Lambda Legal survey, "When Health Care Isn't Caring," revealed that more than half of LGBT people have experienced discrimination in health care, such as patients being blamed for their health status or health professionals refusing care or using harsh or abusive language.

Despite the obstacles, we are making progress toward health care equality. This week, the American Medical Association (AMA), the largest physician group in the U.S., voted GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality into its House of Delegates, their principal policy-making body. This is significant for several reasons: GLMA is the first and only LGBT-focused organization to sit in the AMA House of Delegates, and more importantly, it provides the opportunity for the collective voice of the LGBT community to be a part of the dialogue that will shape health care policies for providers and institutions throughout America. GLMA has had a strong partnership with the AMA for many years, but this week's acceptance into the House of Delegates will further strengthen this partnership and advance our mission to achieve equality in health care for LGBT people and health professionals.

Through the work of many advocates -- including GLMA, our partners and government agencies -- the mainstream health care community is beginning to respond to the unacceptable discrimination and health disparities our community faces through adopting comprehensive policies and providing training and education that support respectful, welcoming health care. Over the past few years, we have seen more and more health professional associations adopting these policies and voicing their support for LGBT equality.

LGBT equality is within our grasp. Now is the time to raise our own voices and be heard about our own health. The health care community, including your provider, needs to know how to care for you with a comprehensive, compassionate approach that addresses your unique needs.

Here are a few things you can do right now to be proactive about your health:

  1. Come out to your provider, especially your primary care provider. They need to know your sexual orientation and gender identity in order to provide the best care possible.
  2. Don't wait. Start talking now. Discuss important health issues with your provider at your next visit. GLMA's factsheet "Top Ten Health Issues to Discuss with your Provider" is a great tool to help start the conversation.
  3. Encourage your health care provider to learn more about LGBT health. Health care providers are continuously learning the latest health information and best practices for caring for various communities, so encourage them to learn about our community.

The LGBT community has seen significant gains in the past few years, but there is still a long road ahead for full equality in all areas of our lives... and we each have a role to play. Join us as we work to ensure our community receives the health care we deserve.

Desi Bailey, M.D., is the President of GLMA and Hospital Chief of Staff and Chief Medical Officer at Group Health in Seattle, Wash.

Hector Vargas, J.D., is the Executive Director of GLMA.