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Breaking barriers: Pride Month is a reminder to support each other

Dr Dan Saunders, Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Northern Care Alliance NHS Foundation Trust, shares what Pride Month (1 - 30 June 2024) means to him and the importance of creating supportive healthcare environments for LGBTQ+ doctors and patients.

Pride Month will have a significant meaning for many people, but to me, it's about making connections and supporting each other.

Reflecting on my time as a medical student, where the field of medicine was not entirely 'welcoming' to LGBTQ+ individuals, reminds me of how lonely and isolated I felt at times. I had genuine concerns about how my sexual orientation might affect both my personal life and my career. Finding a group of medical colleagues in senior roles helped me the most and I'm so grateful to them for being so inspiring. There was no internet, it was difficult to connect with colleagues and often the GLADD group meetings happened in secret because of fears we might be found out.

Thankfully, society (and medicine) have moved on a little since then. Today, I recognise how important that early support was when I see friends and colleagues still feeling vulnerable. Our LGBTQ+ colleagues need to feel supported and respected by their healthcare professionals because having to constantly 'look over our shoulder' for fear of being judged diverts a lot of energy and focus from being able to care for our patients and authentic to ourselves.

Advocacy for change

Despite progress, changes are still needed within the healthcare system to better support LGBTQ+ healthcare professionals and patients. I think there is less overt discrimination now but often colleagues do not understand or seek to understand how care might be provided in a better way. What I would advocate for, and something I have tried to do the most work on, is awareness raising and education.

In addition, we must continue to work with patients to empower them to come forward as their authentic selves. Sitting in a clinic waiting room with your same-sex partner can be emotionally difficult for some patients and I have known a few to bring along a pretend 'husband' or 'wife' to consultations in order to feel they will be accepted. The other feedback we repeatedly receive is about the poor discussions concerning the implications of treatment on future fertility and sex life, with doctors making assumptions instead of seeking to understand the patient's personal circumstance and specific wishes. For example, they might assume lesbian patients do not require a cervical smear or that gay men do not need to have conversations about fertility.

Better care

There's good evidence that subtle changes can have quite a big impact, such as LGBTQ+ inclusive reading material and posters in waiting rooms, ensuring patient information is welcoming to all and that imagery is diverse and inclusive. Another area for consideration is the registration process within trusts. Training the reception staff to be able to explain to patients and their families why their information is being collected and reassuring them that it will be used sensitively will also help provide better care.

Inclusive leadership

I often reference Michael West's work on compassionate leadership, which highlights the importance of the feelings of belonging, trust and mutual support. The NHS Rainbow Badge scheme has positively contributed to this for the LGBTQ+ staff and patient groups, establishing a legacy that I hope will continue.

Pride Month is a reminder that feeling connected with colleagues, looking out for each other and supporting one another is so important.