How One Doctor Ignited a Spark of Change
Kyle Christiason, MD, Medical Director for UnityPoint Accountable Care and family medicine physician, explains what inspired his push to make health care more inclusive for the LGBTQ community.
Eight years ago, the wheels of change started spinning in my home when my ninth grader came out and identified as transgender. As his parents, the most important thing for us to do was be there for him and show our love and support. As a physician, I wanted to know everything I could to help facilitate his transition journey. However, everywhere I looked, no one had answers — not my medical colleagues, nor my insurance company. I felt helpless. It’s my job to have the answers, but I quickly discovered the scarcity of resources.
Our frustration inspired us to do something. In 2017, we launched a clinic dedicated to LGBTQ+ health care at my UnityPoint Health practice in Cedar Falls. I wanted to re-design the care experience to be safer and more welcoming for everyone, including my son. Statistics show one in four transgender individuals had a very negative experience with health care in the past year, and 20 percent were refused care simply for being transgender. I wanted my son, and the entire LGBTQ+ community, to have a different experience.
I anticipated the Herculean effort it would take to spark a new clinic movement. However, every time I expected a hurdle, I joyfully discovered solutions, support and engagement. The pieces started to fall into place — from finding physicians, providers and nurses, to recruiting pharmacists and administrative support. There was willingness from everyone to create a dedicated, safe and more welcoming experience for LGBTQ+ patients.
A key principle at our clinic is personalization. Evidence shows using someone’s chosen name, or specified pronouns, can be one of the most affirming moments of the health care experience. That’s why the entire clinic team participates in special training to learn terminology, understand inequities and identify available resources to better appreciate the unique challenges for the LGBTQ+ community and their incredible resiliency.
Although these personalizations may seem small, the impact can be lifesaving. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth who have at least one accepting adult in their life were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. Using someone’s chosen name and honoring pronouns are visible examples of support.
The clinic has been fulfilling for all who walk through our door. At the end of the workday, our team shares “joy bombs,” or positive stories of how we reconnected with our mission. For example, our patients describe how their self-care changed when someone in health care affirmed their most authentic self. The inaugural UnityPoint Health clinic has been active for three and a half years, now with a second LGBTQ+ clinic in Des Moines.
I am proud to be part of an organization, like UnityPoint Health, that emphasizes the importance of diversity, equity and inclusivity in health care.
My hope is the principles and practices we’re nurturing in our LGBTQ+ clinics become universally applicable across our diverse community. However, we can’t just hope a great health care experience happens by chance. Rather, a great experience must happen by design.
That’s my challenge to everyone out there. Be open. Ask yourself how you can show another human being how much they matter. I started this journey for my son, Ben. He’s my inspiration. What will yours be?