We have come a long way in our attitudes towards individuals who are LGBTQ. Unfortunately, disparities in healthcare still exist. Many factors play into this gap.

Our LGBTQ friends have experienced greater amounts of discrimination throughout their lives. As a result, this community suffers from much higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Stress leads to greater tobacco use, which increases the risk for many cancers, heart attacks and strokes.

I would like to tell you that medical providers have always offered great care for this community, unfortunately I cannot. Today, one in four transgender patients say they have received unequal care. One in two reported that they had to teach their healthcare professional basic transgender care. These skills are poorly taught in medical schools, leaving individual providers to develop these skills on their own. We do have much to improve, but now we thankfully have more physicians who are dedicated to learning how to best care for this community.

Not surprisingly, the LGBTQ community tends to receive less preventive medicine. Since going to a doctor can be terrifying, care is often avoided. Lesbian women are more likely to avoid routine Pap smears despite having higher rates of HPV, the virus that can lead to cervical cancer and other cancers. Avoiding routine screening puts them at higher risk. This is just one example of the importance of screening and why we need to improve preventive care for our LGBTQ friends.

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If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, I am sorry if you have experienced unequal care. Finding a provider and team that you feel comfortable with is important. Obtaining preventive care will help you stay healthy now and into the future. Discuss your sexual health openly with your provider, since screening tests should be tailored to your experience. If you are age 26 or younger, the HPV vaccine series is recommended to protect you and your partner against cervical, anal and throat cancers.

If you are in a relationship with someone with HIV, or if you do not know your partner’s HIV status, you should be tested for HIV. You should also talk to your provider about a daily preventative therapy, called PrEP, to protect yourself from HIV. Drug manufacturers often provide the medication at a discount if it is not covered by your insurance. The medication reduces your risk of getting HIV by 90 percent. If you have had a sexual encounter with someone who may have had HIV, see your provider within 72 hours for treatment. This treatment is called Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, also known as PEP. The greatest prevention comes from being in a committed relationship, knowing your status, and knowing that person’s status. Finally, if you have a new partner, you should get tested for sexually transmitted infections on a yearly basis, since most sexually transmitted infections do not have symptoms.

Remember that your optimal health starts with prevention. We hope to see you soon so we can keep you healthy.

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Dr. Brook Murphy, a resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3306.