Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Youth Miss Out on Healthcare

Youth identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were significantly less likely than were their peers to communicate with a physician or utilize health care in the past 12 months, according to data from a cohort study of approximately 4,000 adolescents.

Disparities in physical and mental health outcomes for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) persist in the United States, and emerge in adolescents and young adults, wrote Sari L. Reisner, ScD, of Boston Children’s Hospital, and colleagues.

“LGB adult research indicates substantial unmet medical needs, including needed care and preventive care,” for reasons including “reluctance to disclose sexual identity to clinicians, lower health insurance rates, lack of culturally appropriate preventive services, and lack of clinician LGB care competence,” they said.

However, health use trends by adolescents who identify as LGB have not been well studied, they noted.

In a study published in JAMA Network Open, the researchers analyzed data from 4,256 participants in the third wave (10th grade) of adolescents in Healthy Passages, a longitudinal, observational cohort study of diverse public school students in Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; and Los Angeles County. Data were collected in grades 5, 7, and 10.

The study population included 640 youth who identified as LGB, and 3,616 non-LGB youth. Sexual status was based on responses to questions in the grade 10 youth survey. Health care use was based on the responses to questions about routine care, such as a regular checkup, and other care, such as a sick visit. Data on delayed care were collected from parents and youth. At baseline, the average age of the study participants in fifth grade was 11 years, 48.9% were female, 44.5% were Hispanic or Latino, and 28.9% were Black.

Overall, more LGB youth reported not receiving needed medical care when they thought they needed it within the past 12 months compared with non-LGB youth (42.4% of LGB vs. 30.2% of non-LGB youth; adjusted odds ratio 1.68). The most common conditions for which LGB youth did not seek care were sexually transmitted infections, contraception, and substance use.

Overall, the main reason given for not seeking medical care was that they thought the problem would go away (approximately 26% for LGB and non-LGB). Approximately twice as many LGB youth as non-LGB youth said they avoided medical care because they did not want their parents to know (14.5% vs. 9.4%).

Significantly more LGB youth than non-LGB youth reported difficulty communicating with their physicians in the past 12 months (15.3% vs. 9.4%; aOR 1.71). The main reasons for not communicating with a clinician about a topic of concern were that the adolescent did not want parents to know (40.7% of LGB and 30.2% of non-LGB) and that they were too embarrassed to talk about the topic (37.5% of LGB and 25.9% of non-LGB).

The researchers were not surprised that “LGB youth self-reported greater difficulty communicating with a clinician about topics they wanted to discuss,” but they found no significant differences in reasons for communication difficulty based on sexual orientation.

Approximately two-thirds (65.8%) of LGB youth reported feeling “a little or not at all comfortable” talking to a health care clinician about their sexual attractions, compared with approximately one-third (37.8%) of non-LGB youth.

Only 12.5% of the LGB youth said that their clinicians knew their sexual orientation, the researchers noted. However, clinicians need to know youths’ sexual orientation to provide appropriate and comprehensive care, they said, especially in light of the known negative health consequences of LGB internalized stigma, as well as the pertinence of certain sexual behaviors to preventive care and screening.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the cross-sectional design and inability to show causality, and by the incongruence of different dimensions of sexual orientation, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the use only of English and Spanish language, and a lack of complete information on disclosure of sexual orientation to parents, the researchers noted.

The results were strengthened by the diverse demographics, although they may not be generalizable to a wider population, they added.

However, the data show that responsive health care is needed to reduce disparities for LGB youth, they emphasized. “Care should be sensitive and respectful to sexual orientation for all youth, with clinicians taking time to ask adolescents about their sexual identity, attractions, and behaviors, particularly in sexual and reproductive health,” they concluded.

Adolescents Suffer Barriers Similar to Those of Adults

“We know that significant health disparities exist for LGBTQ adults and adolescents,” Kelly Curran, MD, of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Oklahoma City, said in an interview. “LGBTQ adults often have had poor experiences during health care encounters – ranging from poor interactions with inadequately trained clinicians to frank discrimination,” she said. “These experiences can prevent individuals from seeking health care in the future or disclosing important information during a medical visit, both of which can contribute to worsened health outcomes,” she emphasized.

Prior to this study, data to confirm similar patterns of decreased health care utilization in LGB youth were limited, Curran said. “Identifying and understanding barriers to health care for LGBTQ youth are essential to help address the disparities in this population,” she said.

Curran said she was not surprised by the study findings for adolescents, which reflect patterns seen in LGBTQ adults.

Overcoming barriers to encourage LGB youth to seek regular medical care involves “training health care professionals about LGBTQ health, teaching the skill of taking a nonjudgmental, inclusive history, and making health care facilities welcoming and inclusive, such as displaying a pride flag in clinic, and using forms asking for pronouns,” Curran said.

Curran said she thinks the trends in decreased health care use are similar for transgender youth. “I suspect, if anything, that transgender youth will have even further decreased health care utilization when compared to cisgender heterosexual peers and LGB peers,” she noted.

Going forward, it will be important to understand the reasons behind decreased health care use among LGB youth, such as poor experiences, discrimination, or fears about confidentiality, said Curran. “Additionally, it would be important to understand if this decreased health utilization also occurs with transgender youth,” she said.

The Healthy Passages Study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the study coauthors disclosed funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality as part of the Harvard-wide Pediatric Health Services Research Fellowship Program. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose. Curran had no financial conflicts to disclose, but serves on the editorial advisory board of Pediatric News.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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