Surhat

Healthy and General

LGBTQ+ patients have unique needs. This N.J. health system

4 min read

The trauma had taken its toll, even in the privacy of a doctor’s office.

Like many in the LGBTQ+ community, Brandon Balcom often wasn’t comfortable sharing the intimate details of his life, including with medical professionals.

“I wasn’t always forthcoming with everything about my health, whether that be mental health or physical health,” he said.

But that has changed.

The 41-year-old travel services professional — who recently moved to Collingswood from Minneapolis — and his husband Dane Cox, 36, plan to become patients at Virtua Pride Primary Care, a new practice in Marlton dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community.

“To know that there’s a practice and doctors who are thinking about the patient in that way is more comforting,” said Balcom, who had seen doctors at a similar LGBTQ+-friendly practice in another state.

Virtua Pride Primary Care officially opens Monday.

“We’re going to be providing full primary care for adults, for children over 7 … that’s going to include the gender-affirming care, HIV testing, prevention, post-exposure prophylaxis, pre-exposure prophylaxis, management of HIV, sexual health, behavioral health services,” said Dr. Shanin Gross, an osteopathic physician at Virtua, who will help lead the practice.

Balcom and Cox explained the stakes: There can be discomfort with a doctor who’s not familiar with LGBTQ+ health issues, and that discomfort often leads to hesitation to raise concerns or ask questions. Sometimes it means avoiding care altogether.

“The more comfortable you are with your primary care physician, inevitably, the more you’re just going to share about any health concern,” Balcom said. “And I think that’s true for any person, right? You do worry because you see a mole on your skin, and you don’t want to be seen as a hypochondriac. But should I ask? Should I not ask?

“And the better relationship you can develop with your doctor, the more likely you’re just going to say, ‘Hey, I saw this. Should I be concerned about it?’”

Cox said LGBTQ+ patients often face the burden of having to explain certain things to doctors, like medication such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV infection).

“There was a time in the past,” Cox said, “where when I went to see my primary care physician and I brought up PrEP — which is something that’s kind of unique to the queer community or gay males specifically. And as the patient, I actually kind of felt like that appointment flipped on me because I then ended up having to do some of the educating to the doctor because the doctor wasn’t aware of it and didn’t know about it.”

It’s the subtle moments like that that make it comforting to know there is a place where the patient only has to worry about being a patient, the couple explained.

Cox also raised the prospects of adopting.

“All of us would be able to go and be patients at one practice,” said the State Farm agent. “It’s also something that, as I learned more, was comforting to me.”

Virtua Pride Primary Care is about a year and a half in the making. Early last year, Gross sent an email to a colleague, believing there should be a place dedicated to LGBTQ+ health care.

The reason was simple. While the hospital already offered a number of medical services, it wanted to create a safe environment, a place that allowed members of the LGBTQ+ community to be seen by doctors who understand their specific needs.

“When a patient feels that their provider sees them as a person and not just as a patient, they’re more likely to be actively engaged in their own care,” said Gross, who identifies as a non-binary/genderqueer human. “They’re just going to have better health outcomes.

“And although we have hundreds or thousands of amazing primary care docs, there is something different and unique and special about the LGBTQ community and their individual needs. And to be seen — to come into an office and feel that you are the norm and not the exception — is just a feeling that you really can’t replicate anywhere else.”

Dr. Sam Weiner, vice president and chief medical officer at Virtua Medical Group, spoke with Gross during a joint interview.

“I think we have come to realize though, as many other health systems have, that there are inequities in health care out there and the needs, the medical needs, of the LGBTQ community we feel is an opportunity to kind of right some of the inequities that exist out there for medical care,” Weiner said.

Weiner was the recipient of Gross’ email in early 2021.

“This, to be truthful, started with a phone call — an email and a phone call — from Dr. Gross, again, highlighting some of the gaps in care that exist for members of the LGBTQ community and some ideas and really presenting an opportunity to help close those gaps and improve the health of South Jersey, and so that’s really where the idea came from,” Weiner said.

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Spencer Kent may be reached at [email protected].