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July 23

Published in: Spot The Difference | The Drum

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Illustration by Rianna Woods

For many LGBTQ+ individuals, visiting the doctor can be uncomfortable and triggering. A 25-year-old anonymous user set out to raise awareness of this by sharing her story online following a cancer diagnosis. After disclosing her sexual orientation as lesbian, she faced discrimination when the nurse refused to perform a smear test based on outdated research and training, concluding the test was unnecessary because the patient had never had sex with a man. Despite this, the patient pushed for a smear test, ultimately revealing her cancer diagnosis.

Wunderman Thompson's extensive social listening research has analysed seven million online conversations on LGBTQ+ topics and found 242,000 mentions specifically related to LGBTQ+ healthcare and the devastating impact negative experiences can have on LGBTQ+ individuals’ mental and physical health.


Discrimination, invalidation, misgendering, and rejection should never be part of the treatment but it’s clear these are prevalent issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community within healthcare. Our research further shows that around 28% of patients feel stereotyped, and 24% are blamed for their health issues. For non-binary and transgender individuals, this increases to 40%. Even with accepting and respectful professionals, unconscious remarks and heteronormative biases persist. Assumptions about sexuality or gender shape how these professionals treat and communicate with LGBTQ+ patients, causing frustration and stress, exacerbating the physical and mental side effects of these issues.


However, the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ individuals seeking healthcare extend beyond the microaggressions that contribute to dysphoria. They can encounter significant barriers and gatekeeping when accessing care, including the denial of hormone prescriptions, injections, gender-related referrals, and even necessary surgeries. Experiencing such treatment can discourage patients from seeking medical help from GPs or hospitals. A recent survey by TransActual revealed that 57% of transgender people delay or avoid seeking medical help altogether, even when they are sick. This puts them at a higher risk of not receiving necessary medical attention, ranging from routine check-ups and dental care, to treatment for more severe conditions like cancer. This pattern of avoidance, coupled with negative healthcare experiences, can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety, particularly among younger people.


In another case, Ellen Mellor, who is now being tested for coeliac disease, was told by her doctor that “the stress of being transgender caused her severe headaches”. She refused to accept this diagnosis, and although now more cautious with which doctor she consults, Ellen remains adamant about not avoiding the doctor entirely due to this experience.   

And then there’s, Jacob Gammon, a young Black gay man explains how it took him 6 months to return to any medical professional after experiencing discrimination. He says,

“I felt so discouraged. I didn’t have people I could talk to about this, because people don’t understand the things that we go through as the LGBTQ+ community, or even just individuals. They don’t understand that some of these things can keep you from life-saving attention that you need".

So where is the solace? Healthcare brands are in a strong position to take the lead and help tackle such bias and discrimination. It’s important however to acknowledge that some brands still struggle to authentically support the LGBTQ+ community without engaging in what is commonly referred to as "rainbow-washing". To avoid this, healthcare brands must prioritise authenticity and long-term commitment. They should approach their marketing efforts with care and integrity, ensuring they accurately represent the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and highlight real stories and experiences. By showcasing genuine support and empathy, they can build trust and resonate with the LGBTQ+ community.


Active involvement and listening are vital. Healthcare brands should seek feedback, engage with LGBTQ+ individuals, and involve them in the decision-making processes. Feedback can be gained through collaboration with LGBTQ+ advocacy organisations, community centres and support groups, all of which can share resources and promote LGBTQ+ health initiatives to help brands demonstrate their commitment and solidarity.


Developing and enforcing inclusive policies that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression is essential. It creates a safe space, ensuring confidentiality, privacy, and respectful treatment. Healthcare brands should prioritise extensive education and training for their staff, as well as recruit individuals from the LGBTQ+ community who can empathise with their lived experience. This approach increases awareness, understanding and representation, while ensuring that healthcare providers base their engagement on knowledge rather than personal bias. Facilitating gender-neutral toilets and using diverse marketing materials such as inclusive imagery, language, and messaging can foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety, signal support and promote inclusivity.

Positive change is happening elsewhere too, even if it feels like it's only the beginning. Active members and allies are raising awareness of negative experiences and poor access to healthcare, and initiatives are emerging to support the community. Information sharing and online lists of LGBTQ+ friendly GPs, particularly for trans individuals, offer valuable connections.


GPs are also showing a commitment to creating an LGBTQ+ friendly environment. Dr Michael Farquhar, a consultant in paediatric sleep medicine designed the NHS LGBTQ+ rainbow badge to ensure no child would experience the treatment he did when coming out to a trusted doctor at 14. First sported by his colleagues, the badge is now worn by thousands of NHS workers.

With this earnestness for allyship, healthcare brands can become leaders in creating a world that puts inclusivity, equality, and the well-being of every individual at the forefront, fostering a society where everyone can thrive and be their authentic selves.

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