City launches health plan for LGBT community

By Tim Shaunnessey

In many senses, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons live the same lives as their heterosexual counterparts, yet there are unique health issues these community members face that aren’t as well documented or researched as those of the mainstream community, according to Hutson Inniss, executive director of the National Coalition for LGBT Health.

Hoping to address these disconnects, the Chicago Department of Public Health launched the LGBT Community Action Plan March 31. The plan aims to focus on the health needs of Chicago’s LGBT community through improvements in mutual understanding among cultures and better collection of sexual orientation and gender identification data.

The action plan functions as a supplement to Healthy Chicago, the city’s public health initiative. Commissioner of Public Health Bechara Choucair worked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to develop Healthy Chicago and said the LGBT-specific plan is the first of numerous culture-centric additions to the program.

Choucair said there is a distinct inconsistency between the quality of health care provided to mainstream society and the quality of care offered to the LGBT community.

“There’s enough evidence that shows the LGBT community suffers from health disparities,” he said. “The most common example I use is around smoking. If you look at the LGBT community, the smoking rate is around 34 percent. This is compared to 18 percent for the general population.”

Other health concerns addressed in the plan include HIV infection rates among homosexual men, obesity among lesbian women of color and problems with access to health care for LGBT communities of color.

A key phrase used in the strategy of the action plan is “cultural competency,” which refers to cross-cultural understanding crucial to proper care, according to Choucair.

“If you are an individual who is part of the LGBT community and you go to receive services from your medical doctor, an emergency department [or if] you’re admitted to the hospital, you have very specific issues,” he said. “You have [a] very specific culture that [your provider] needs to be aware of so the care you’re receiving is more appropriate.”

With the need for better understanding in mind, the LGBT Community Action Plan includes training that aids in developing cultural competency.

Choucair said he believes the government needs to continue to provide more training for service providers, whether they are health care providers, employers, educators or landlords, so they are prepared interact with the LGBT community in an “appropriate” way.

While there have been academic studies conducted on the health patterns of the LGBT community, such research is often limited in scope and doesn’t represent the nature of a population in the real world. Choucair said  population-based studies are necessary for creating appropriate policies.

“When we collect data on population, we want to ask the question about sexual orientation, and we want to ask the question about gender identity,” he said. “Once we get to that level of data, we will be able to have better data when it comes to the LGBT community. This is a key element in our strategies.”

Choucair said the Department of Public Health is also making a point to utilize social media as a means of outreach to the LGBT community. The department is present on Twitter @chipublichealth, and on Facebook.

“We’ve been finding it to be a great tool to engage the public when it comes to public health issues,” Choucair said.