Gays “treated insensitively” by health service

Gay people are being let down by Sweden’s health service, according to a new study.

The findings were made in a thesis written at Uppsala university by nurse Gerd Röndahl, who bases his findings on 200 staff questionnaires and some 30 interviews with homosexual patients.

Staff were reported to have reacted with a lack of tact when it came to questions about close relatives and next of kin. Experiences like this also make it more frightening for both patients and staff to ‘come out’ and be open about their sexuality. Many gay staff members reported being in an ongoing process of evaluation about the risk of being open about their sexual orientation among workmates, according to Röndahl.

Although in general, nursing staff and students expressed positive attitudes towards gay people in their questionnaires, others expressed very negative attitudes:

“This means that they can’t truly be part of the community. In health care staff are so dependent on one another that this could present a serious problem in the workplace”, says Gerd Röndahl.

Much of the language used in nursing contexts was perceived as insensitive, insulting and humiliating. The thesis recommends that nursing staff learn how to communicate in a more natural way and to be aware of the norms they communicate through the language and behaviour they use.

“One woman described how she was admitted for abdominal pain. She told the nurse that she was living with a lesbian partner and could therefore not be pregnant. The nurse seemed perplexed and told her the test was routine in normal cases. This implies that the norm is a heterosexual patient, and this is hurtful,” explains Gerd Röndahl.

Sven Grützmeier, spokesperson for the association of gay doctors in Sweden, told Swedish Radio:

“The problems for homosexuals is that the whole of the health care system here is built on the presumption that everyone is heterosexual. All the questionnaires, everything we think about when we research the patient, and all the questions we ask, are based on an assumption of heterosexuality. Simple questions that can highlight or elicit information about whether the client is homosexual or bisexual are not asked. There is no education in that area, and so people feel embarrassed about it and don’t bother.”

Röndahl argues that despite the problems it can be easier to work within health care as a homosexual than in other areas of work; “because in the health sector we are used to meeting people from different backgrounds, family constellations and cultures, and we are not as passive in our action when we are faced with a new situation that we are not used to”.