'Plans for doctors to ask patients their sexual orientation are a positive step for the LGBT community' (OPINION)

Plans that will see your GP asking about your sexual orientation as of April 2019 were met with mixed reactions this week. Not only did the Daily Mail plaster the story on their front page, the concerns also spread to members of the LGBT community. Many gay and bisexual men expressed their concerns about these plans on social media, with some stating that they were anxious about the implications of discussing their sexuality with their GP. Others backed the idea, arguing that this is something that many have been championing for years. On the whole, these plans are a positive step for lesbian, gay and bisexual people accessing the National Health Service and will enable improvements to be made to our health service in the future. Many gay and bisexual men argue that sexuality is private and shouldn’t be relevant to their care on the NHS. This is understandable, given the discrimination that they may have faced in the past and in their daily lives. That being said if we don’t start talking about our sexuality, we will not make progress when it comes to changing people’s attitudes towards our community. Medical records are confidential, and whilst there have been data breaches in the past, I’d argue that even before the introduction of these plans, many people would not wish any element of these records to be shared. There is equally a worry that a GP will just assume someone isn’t heterosexual if they decline to answer the question, but there could be a number of reasons why somebody may not wish to discuss their sexual orientation with a healthcare professional. For instance, older people may not feel this question applies to them, certain cultural values may influence a person’s decision to answer, others may simply feel the question is not relevant to their care. Healthcare professionals are aware that patients may not wish to discuss a variety of things with them and appreciate a patient’s right to keep information from them. On the other hand, asking about someone’s sexuality has the potential to be extremely beneficial in the long-run. Currently there is very little data on NHS patients that do not identify as heterosexual. And whilst LGBT charities such as Stonewall and PACE have previously compiled reports that demonstrate LGBT people are disproportionately affected by certain medical conditions, we’re unable to establish a wider picture of this given that we’re currently not collecting this information from NHS England patients. Health is affected by a plethora of biological, psychological and social factors. Age, gender, ethnicity are just some of the issues that are taken into account when looking at health inequalities within the general population. Interestingly, sexuality is often brought up, but it’s extremely challenging to establish how somebody’s sexuality may impact upon their health if this information isn’t being collected. In response to these proposals Dr Peter Swinyard, chairman of the Family Doctors Association, stated that sexuality “doesn’t affect healthcare outcomes” for older people. We simply don’t know this to be true, because we don’t have concrete data to support this claim. This emphasises the need for such information to be collected so that evidence-based conclusions can be made. It’s unsurprising that some gay and bisexual men are fearful of these plans, given the discrimination that we face in our daily lives. That being said, I think it’s important to remember that the fundamental reason for asking about somebody’s sexual orientation is to identify any healthcare gaps between heterosexual people and those identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual. This would allow the NHS and other bodies to implement measures, in order to overcome these. Equally, I’d like to see mandatory LGBT awareness training for clinical staff accompanying the proposed plans. As a consequence of talking about sexuality, it will send out a positive message to society as a whole that it is something that can be discussed openly, hopefully breaking down some of the barriers that still exist within our society today. Words: Hadley Stewart