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USC health professions students work to bring LGBTQ patient care issues to the fore

Second annual Southern California LGBTQ Health Conference to educate professionals on queer patient care

Pride Parade in D.C.
Participants walk in the Capital Pride Parade. (Photo/Tim Brown)

When Darby Osnaya visited an Inland Empire dental office, the dental assistant would often offer the 27-year-old more than a professional opinion.

“The negative feedback I would get from her would range from judgmental looks and scoffs when I would paint my nails to unnecessary comments about my appearance,” said Osnaya, a health educator from Garden Grove who identifies as gender fluid, a dynamic mix of male and female. “She’d say stuff like ‘You make such a handsome boy when you’re not feminine.’”

While Osnaya was able to brush off the hurtful comments, it did affect his time in the dental chair.

“I started going plain and non-femme to avoid any negative looks or feedback,” Osnaya said.

It’s situations like these that organizers of the second annual Southern California LGBTQ Health Conference hope to quash by better educating health professionals on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer cultural issues.

The event, organized by health professions students at USC, UCLA and the University of California, Irvine, aims “to stimulate thought and learning around various topics relating to LGBTQ health and wellness in the context of individual lives and stories,” according to the event website.

Organizers expect nearly 200 attendees, including currently practicing and future health care professionals as well as LGBTQ community members, to attend the conference, which will take place Feb. 20 at UC Irvine.

In the dental chair

“It’s not necessarily about trying to get dental professionals to ask their patients, ‘What’s your sexual orientation?’ or ‘What’s your gender identity?’ explained Jonathan Nguyen, Albert Schweitzer Fellow and member of the event’s executive committee. “It’s more about if the subject pops up, then you’re more aware of how you can talk to someone of that identity.”

Nguyen, who is openly gay, said he felt LGBTQ issues were not given a lot of exposure in the dental curriculum, particularly since it’s seldom relevant to clinical treatment of teeth.

“It’s not so much how it can improve treatment. It’s more about how we can improve patient experience,” he said.

The dental chair provides a lot of stress for patients. If they know that this dental provider doesn’t agree with their orientation, then it’s very anxiety inducing.

Jonathan Nguyen

“The dental chair provides a lot of stress for patients,” Nguyen added. “If they know that this dental provider doesn’t agree with their orientation, then it’s very anxiety inducing.”

While at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, Nguyen has led a cultural sensitivity module about LGBTQ patient care and has given a speech during a continuing education course. He has also dedicated his Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project to bridging the gap between the LGBTQ community and dentistry.

“I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve received a lot of faculty and peer support,” he said of his time at USC.

In the doctor’s office

Two other Trojans sit on the conference’s executive committee, including Justin Trop and Jennifer Franks — both second-year students at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

The medical students said they would like to see LGBTQ patient care issues better represented in health care curricula.

“I feel there is still a relative paucity on these topics, especially given that we, as health care professionals, are in a position to work with our patients to maximize their sexual, emotional, psychosocial and physical well-being,” Trop said.

And while LGBTQ cultural literacy might be focused on patient experience in dentistry, it takes on a new level of importance with a doctor, who focuses on the entire patient.

“If your patient is a transman in need of a pap smear or is intersex and has retained testes, if you don’t ask your patient about it, you will never know, and they could be in danger.”

While the conference may be a step in the right direction of educating health care professionals on LGBTQ issues, both Trop and Franks would like to see these issues worked into health care curricula better.

“I believe the tides are shifting,” Trop said. “Students are initiating a wave of change, and administrators are beginning to acknowledge the importance of such change.”

“The students are ahead of us on this and driving change,” said Suzanne Palmer, professor of clinical radiology and medicine, as well as president of the Keck School of Medicine of USC Faculty Council. “They were instrumental in establishing LGBT Thrive, a group on USC’s Health Sciences Campus that includes staff, students and faculty from across the hospitals and medical school, that is helping to integrate LGBT friendly policies into education and clinical practice.”

Keck administrators recently approved a lecture on LGBTQ health, according to Franks, thanks to the advocacy work of MedGLO, another LGBT organization, which has more than 70 members at USC.

Still, Franks said she’d like to see the issues woven into every course where applicable to help future health care professionals understand their LGBTQ patients and make them feel more comfortable sharing the details of their lives.

“I think of my friends and family, my loved ones who identify as part of the LGBTQ and queer community, and I imagine the standard of care I would want them to receive,” she said. “I think of what I want their doctors to know, how I want them to treat my loved ones. Conferences like this will help to spread this information.”

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USC health professions students work to bring LGBTQ patient care issues to the fore

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