Study urges more LGBT health research

A highly anticipated national LGBT health study released last week found research on LGBT health issues to be severely lacking.

“The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People,” handed down March 31 by the Institute of Medicine, urged the National Institutes of Health to adopt a specific LGBT health-research agenda that takes into account the unique pressures faced by the sexual- and gender-minority population and recommended LGBT inclusion in federal data-collection tools.

The report was the result of an investigation by a 17-member committee created at the urging of NIH, which looked at the state of LGBT health and identified research disparities to allow NIH to enhance its future research efforts.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the report provides the “first comprehensive overview of health-related research” on the LGBT population and is “an important step in identifying research gaps and opportunities as part of an overall effort to understand and address the health needs of LGBT people.”

The report ultimately declined to identify research “gaps,” saying the body of research on LGBT health was so minimal, it could only propose a series of opportunities to begin to populate the research field.

The committee found that one of the main impediments to LGBT health research is the relatively small size of the population and researchers’ resistance to asking potential study participants to self-identify as LGBT.

The modest amount that is known about health needs of sexual and gender minorities is lumped under the “LGBT” umbrella, which the committee said allows for little segmentation among the diverse factions of the community. The report found the majority of LGBT health research to focus on adult white gay males.

The dearth of research is also further fueled by a lack of funding allocated for studies that investigate LGBT health.

“It’s easy to assume that because we are all humans, gender, race or other characteristics of study participants shouldn’t matter in health research, but they certainly do,” said Robert Graham, professor of family medicine and public-health sciences at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and chair of the committee that produced the study. “Routine collection of information on race and ethnicity has expanded our understanding of conditions that are more prevalent among various groups or that affect them differently. We should strive for the same attention to and engagement of sexual and gender minorities in health research.”

To reach that end, the committee set forth a number of recommendations, primarily that NIH implement a research agenda devoted to advancing knowledge and understanding of LGBT health.

To achieve a more complete understanding of LGBT health, the committee advised NIH to undertake projects that collect demographic information, data on social influences, health-care inequities, intervention research and trans-specific needs.

In addition to developing this agenda, the committee urged NIH to undertake agency-wide training on LGBT research, encourage grant applicants to focus on LGBT studies, and support research measures that seek to examine the particular challenges in collecting data on the LGBT community.

The report also recommended that information on sexual orientation and gender identity be included in federally funded health surveys, such as those undertaken by HHS.

The day after the report was released, Sebelius announced the results of an internal review of HHS’ current capacity to address LGBT-health issues: Recommendations include collecting LGBT data, guidance to states about the inclusion of LGBT families in welfare programs and outreach about LGBT health initiatives.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].

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