Upcoming Philadelphia-based app connects LGBTQ folks with informed, affordable health care

Philadelphia Gay News is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a solutions-oriented collaborative reporting project on poverty and Philadelphia’s push for economic justice.

A new app aimed at connecting LGBTQ Philadelphians with queer-competent, affordable health care providers is launching early next month, just in time for OutFest, the nation’s largest National Coming Out Day event on Oct. 13.

QSPACES, which will be available for iOS and Android, will allow users to sift through providers by category or medical specialty, and leave ratings and reviews regarding doctors’ competency around LGBTQ health concerns, like hormone therapy, proper pronoun usage and fertility treatments. 

“It’s been difficult, even today, for the LGBTQ community to trust health and wellness providers … where you’re talking about your body or sensitive subjects about your health and those already really vulnerable situations,” said QSPACES Founder and CEO Catherine Hofmann, who identifies as queer. “[We’re] making sure you’re dealing with someone who’s competent around LGBTQ issues, around gender and sexuality, as well as whatever specialty they’re operating in, and then at the very least that they’re not homophobic or transphobic.”

Ongoing are the tasks of collecting provider listings and developing the app, but Hofmann said she wants to allow users to sort through providers who accept Medicaid, offer mental and physical health care services on a sliding scale or give discounts to certain qualifying parties. 

The upcoming app is round two for QSPACES, which was founded in 2016. A $10,000 innovation prize from Thomas Jefferson University primarily funded the initial go, which included the launch of a now-defunct website. But the project was put on hold due to a lack of viable tech partnerships and other operational insecurities, Hofmann said. 

“It didn’t work out, which was very frustrating, but I wasn’t able to quit on it,” she told PGN, adding, “I still probably get about 10 emails per week from people all over the nation asking for help or sharing their stories, and it’s sad and frustrating and compelling.”

This time around, Hofmann’s determined to make her passion project survive. She teamed up with MilkCrate, a Philadelphia tech startup that launched in 2013 but revamped its mission last year to build apps that help nonprofits and mission-driven organizations better engage their audiences.

The teams linked up in early 2018 to begin chatter on the QSPACES app and fully dove into the project this spring. The partnership is a great fit that will expand QSPACES’ reach beyond its initial attempt, MilkCrate founder Morgan Berman said. Hofmann’s technological needs aligned with features the MilkCrate crew had ready to go, including a directory, customizable maps and a review system.

“In the case of QSPACES, needing to have information at people’s fingertips was crucial,” Berman said. “The ability to source information reviews is really important because of the kind of trust that goes into the doctor-patient relationship. We wanted people to feel comfortable sharing their experiences, and being able to do that on your own platform is really important.” 

Hofmann is covering much of the initial cost of the MilkCrate-QSPACES collaboration out of pocket and is exploring options for sponsorship or subscription fees for providers on her platform, which Hofmann likens to a queer health care “Yelp.” Providers can list their basic information on the app for free or purchase a Premium profile that allows for further promotion. Hofmann said she ultimately hopes to work with the larger health systems across the city, like Jefferson and the hospitals at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, to elevate the services they provide to LGBTQ folks. 

But the most important thing? QSPACES must remain free for users, Hofmann said, because when it comes to queer health care, “You’re kind of playing catch up with your health instead of getting ahead of it.”

“Health insurance is expensive, health care is expensive, and within the LGBTQ community, you have a wide range of socioeconomic statuses,” she explained, adding queer people can be “locked out of some job opportunities” due to discriminatory responses to their gender identity and expression.

A 2018 study by a team of medical researchers in Boston found LGBTQ people in the United States are about twice as likely to be unemployed and uninsured than their straight peers. Additionally, a 2015 study found 80 percent of first-year medical students expressed a degree of bias against lesbians and gay people.

Nonprofit Lambda Legal has found half of LGB people and 70 percent of the trans community have experienced some sort of health care discrimination, while 8 percent of LGB patients and 27 percent of trans and gender nonconforming patients report being outright denied care.

Hofmann originally came up with the idea for QSPACES when she moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 2015. New to the city, she struggled to switch her health insurance and find a doctor she trusted. 

“I didn’t know anybody, so I couldn’t call my friends and be like, ‘Hey do you have a doctor you like?’” Hofmann said. “All the internet searches could go on forever and it was being discussed on Facebook groups and it’s like, ‘Wow, why isn’t this easier?’” 

Once QSPACES is operating successfully in Philadelphia, Hofmann said she will work to bring the technology to LGBTQ people across the country. The MilkCrate team sees similar opportunities for growing the platform’s features and reach, following the launch for OutFest.

“Not only is it important for people living in one city, but it can become an important part of traveling, too,” said Jim Blanchet, MilkCrate COO. “[In] some places, it’s not always as apparent as others where [you] might be able to access a certain service, whereas if we’ve developed a reputation and experience for QSPACES that can be repeatable, it’s something that can be spread and scaled very effectively.”