Not Everything Is a Binary Choice
Patricia Newland, MD, Interim President and CEO - UnityPoint Clinic, explains why she's inspired to make health care more inclusive for the LGBTQ community.
As clinicians, our medical training teaches us to categorize and diagnose. But people are so much more than a diagnosis. They’re a complex collection of experiences, feelings, convictions and backgrounds that, in the medical field, have too often been ignored — or worse — rejected.
In 2017, my colleague, Dr. Kyle Christiason, launched the first UnityPoint Clinic dedicated to providing compassionate and affirming care to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning communities. As the Waterloo clinic got underway, we saw a growing need for services in central Iowa and opened a second clinic in Des Moines. The clinics were designed around the unique needs of our LGBTQ patients, providing care like hormone therapy, STI prevention, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and more in an environment that is safe and welcoming.
Our work opening and running these clinics has taught us many valuable lessons. People are people. The experiences we create – and the care we deliver – should be more fluid and meet people on their own terms.
This realization came into sharp focus during a Safe Zone Training where our facilitator did an icebreaker exercise asking our care team members how they wanted their coffee – black or with cream and sugar. Some felt awkward responding. Some didn’t want coffee at all. Then, our facilitator asked we would order at our favorite coffee shops. There was a wide range of responses.
This simple example made us realize our patient forms were telling people they only had two choices – black coffee or coffee with cream and sugar. People aren’t that simple. Not everything is a binary choice.
Having worked in patient care for 20 years, I feel very strongly about breaking down any barriers that have caused people to suffer any neglect or avoid getting care. No person should feel uncomfortable doing something as basic and important as taking care of themselves. That’s especially true now in light of COVID-19. People need to know we’re open, we’re here for them, and we’re taking all the necessary precautions to keep them safe.
As our providers continue to learn and grow, they share their stories with colleagues in other clinics, helping raise awareness and better personalize the experience for patients across our system. For example, it’s important for all our clinics to understand the intersection between sexual identity and other circumstances that create barriers for patients, including religion, race, socioeconomic status, history of abuse or poor treatment at another health facility. The more we train and raise this awareness on our own teams, the more we can uplift other clinics as well. Personally, I’ve been working on getting better at using my pronouns when introducing myself. I’m not perfect at it, but I consistently work at it.
Our organization’s experience serving our LGBTQ patients has taught us valuable lessons. We must meet people exactly where they are – even if they don’t fit into a neat little box or category.