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Student-led conference educates the Edmonton medical community on LGBTQ health

Conference discussed ways that the health-care system can stigmatize people with different sexual orientation.

By CAIT WILLS | MAY 14 2014

A group of students in the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Alberta held a conference aimed at breaking down barriers for sexual minorities. The Inclusive Health Conference was proposed by Anthony Lott, a medical student in his final year, and organized by the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Advocacy Committee in the faculty of medicine. It took place May 3 on campus, attracting some 50 participants.

Open to medical students, residents, physicians and the community at large, the conference focused on educating, informing and empowering those who work with and treat members of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community.

“Knowledge is power, and we are raising awareness of the influence of sexual and gender identity on health,” said Mr. Lott. He said he hoped the participants would reflect on the personal stories and expert presentations they heard at the conference, “and consider how they can make their practice a bit more inclusive to all.”

Presentations included topics that ranged from developing safe spaces for sexual minority persons in medical schools, to recognizing the transgendered and the difficulties in accessing help. “In the average lifetime of practice, a physician will see about 70,000 individuals. That is 70,000 different ways to live a life and 70,000 different ways to form a family,” said Saleem Razack, associate professor of pediatrics and assistant dean of administration, equity and diversity at McGill University and the keynote speaker.

“We must encourage our medical students to develop a sense of wonder and appreciation of what a privilege it is to witness all of these different ways of being, for better service and health outcomes for all of our patients,” he said.

Kristopher Wells, who gave the conference’s opening plenary on caring for sexual and gender minority patients, said that in Canada “access to health care may be equal [but] the quality of health care often isn’t.
“It is widely understood that a person’s culture, religion, ethnicity and gender impact how illness may appear and be understood,” said Dr. Wells, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at U of A. “Yet, health-care providers and medical professionals seldom ask questions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, key aspects of patient health often go unaddressed.”

Dr. Wells is also director of programs and services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services and co-founder of Camp fYrefly, Canada’s longest-running leadership retreat for sexual and gender minority youth. Dr. Wells called the student-led inclusive health conference “an important step forward in helping professionals to understand the lived realities and health concerns of sexual and gender minorities.”

The one-day conference had a short-term goal of educating health-care practitioners on LGBTQ issues, and a longer-term goal of improving health-care outcomes for LGBTQ patients. Douglas Miller, dean of medicine and dentistry, said the conference was a partnership between the faculty and its members and reflects the faculty’s priority of respecting the “rich diversity of individuals, each with distinct health concerns.”

“In addition to providing knowledgeable care, physicians are tasked with combating societal stigmatization against LGBTQ individuals,” said Dr. Miller at the conference. “The respectful treatment of patients and their families in all care settings, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is absolutely critical in the pursuit of this goal. Yet, without the deliberate recognition of the existence of this systemic stigmatization, we cannot hope to cultivate culturally competent care providers.”

Ian Armstrong, a U of A medical student and conference co-organizer along with Mr. Lott, said part of the conversation is recognizing the strengths that LGBTQ physicians and other health-care workers can contribute to a meaningful dialogue. “We hope that the conference’s success will make current LGBTQ medical students and physicians feel valued, and provide a starting point for mentorship and support,” he said.

Keith Andony, education coordinator with Alberta Health Services, attended the conference and said he found it to be an excellent forum for the faculty to give information to students and doctors about GLBT health issues while engaging the GBLT community in the process. “I look forward to seeing how the faculty will continue to develop the inclusive health conference in future years and continue to work with stakeholders,” said Mr. Andony.

Cait Wills is senior writer and editor with the University of Alberta faculty of medicine and dentistry.

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