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Bringing LGBT Health to the Forefront

The people living in Illinois state Rep. Greg Harris’s district speak 63 different languages. Providing effective healthcare to such a diverse population requires understanding an individual patient’s cultural norms, from faith and family traditions to stigmas faced. That same understanding is necessary for LGBT people, explained Harris at Northwestern’s first annual State of LGBT Health Symposium.

“We really need to start paying attention to how gender identity and sexual orientation also impact the delivery of healthcare,” said Harris, who chairs the House committee that approves budget appropriations for human services, including healthcare. “We need to ensure that there is no wrong door, that when a person goes into a facility and needs healthcare they are welcomed and the provider is able to look at their medical history and treat them in a culturally competent, caring and compassionate way.”

On August 18, the Northwestern Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) hosted scientists, policymakers and community members to discuss how resources are being mobilized to improve the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming people.

(Left) Karen Parker, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, delivered a keynote lecture on the NIH’s strategic plan to advance research to improve the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming people.

(Left) Karen Parker, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, delivered a keynote lecture on the NIH’s strategic plan to advance research to improve the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender-nonconforming people.

Karen Parker, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, delivered a keynote lecture on the NIH’s strategic plan to advance research in this area across its 27 institutes and centers. In fiscal year 2015, the NIH awarded $162 million to support research related to sexual and gender minorities (SGM). About three-quarters of the projects centered on HIV/AIDS.

“Obviously HIV/AIDS work is extremely important, but there are so many other issues and diseases that we really need to be focusing more on,” Parker said. “We held listening sessions with stakeholders, really looked at the needs of the community and asked: What are the critical research questions that we need to be prioritizing?”

She said the NIH is particularly interested in supporting research exploring SGM health disparities. Members of this population not only have higher rates of depression and anxiety disorders, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, but also of certain types of cancer.

“How are things like minority stress impacting cancer, diabetes, arthritis?” Parker said. “One of the reasons this office was established was so we could start to think about how SGM applies to all the disorders that NIH supports.”

Parker also praised the ISGMH for spearheading research in the relatively new arena.

“Northwestern is the first of hopefully many universities that step up to the plate and say this is a really critical research area,” she said.

After Harris and Parker spoke, ISGMH director Brian Mustanski, PhD, associate professor of Medical Social Sciences, and other members of the institute presented some of their research on LGBT health. Learn more about their work in the August 2016 Breakthroughs research newsletter.