Harvard Launches Center for LGBTQ Health

Addressing preventable causes of illness based in discrimination

Harvard School of Public Health

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health | PHOTOGRAPH BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute announced the launch of a new LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence on June 4, in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH).

Citing both the LGBTQ community’s growing size in the US and the health inequities it faces, Brittany Charlton, the inaugural leader of the center, said in an interview that it would work to improve the health of LGBTQ people through advocacy and research, and by training health professionals to better serve and empower the population. Charlton, associate professor of population medicine and in the department of epidemiology (at HSPH and Harvard Medical School), is a scholar of sexual and gender minority health who has studied disparities in reproductive health and cancer.

“Discrimination — whether it's homophobia, racism, transphobia — it gets underneath our skin. And it kills us.” Charlton said, emphasizing that LGBTQ people face worse pregnancy outcomes and higher rates of premature death than the general population. “It's such a preventable cause.”

Early programs will include an LGBTQ Health Voices Fellowship, meant to train the next generation of LGBTQ health leaders to influence public discourse (by learning to write op-eds and policy briefs, for example); design of new coursework for medical and public health students that includes teaching them to document health disparities; and funding relevant research. It will also provide tuition scholarships to students doing work on LBGTQ health.

The center will be staffed by 13 faculty members from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute—an affiliate of Harvard Medical School that is part of a larger health insurance company called Point32Health—and HSPH, including epidemiologists, pediatricians, biostatisticians, and behavioral scientists. “Dr. Charlton has assembled what you might call a ‘dream team’ of researchers across both institutions,” Emily Oken, the president of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, said in a statement.

The partnership with Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute will give the center access to healthcare data from customers across New England, and the opportunity to collect new data for research on sexual orientation and gender identity.

HSPH Dean Andrea Baccarelli said that the center would advance the school’s “core mission” to “improve health and promote equity so all people can thrive.”

The launch of the program, during Pride Month, comes amid growing attacks on LGBTQ rights and healthcare in state legislatures across the United States, including many which restrict gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Some laws have limited participation in youth sports teams that align with trans people’s gender identity, or forbidden discussion of LGBTQ topics in schools. Studies have also demonstrated profound obstacles trans patients face to receiving equitable healthcare, with nearly a fifth having been outright refused care by a provider.

“In the first half of this year, not even the end of June, there were more than 500 of these discriminatory bills introduced in the state legislatures," said Charlton, continuing, “There could not be more of an urgent time for us.” She added that she hoped the center would help educate clinicians on more LGBTQ-positive practices—for example, taking an inclusive sexual history that builds rapport with the patient with more open-ended questions.

“We’re really not dedicating enough time to preparing our students or med school students to care for the LGBTQ population,” she said. “A study several years ago showed that we dedicate an average of five hours or less across the full four years of medical school to preparing students to care for our community. That certainly pales in comparison to the time that schools devote to other topics.”

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey ’92 also celebrated the opening of the center, hailing its potential to lead to “new innovations and lifesaving treatments.”

Read more articles by Jack R. Trapanick

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