NHS doctors will be able to ask patients about their sexual orientation commencing 2019, according to the new government plans. The guideline apparently asks medical professionals to keep a record of the patient’s answer during face-to-face consultations – in an effort to ensure no patient is discriminated against.

“This information standard is designed to help NHS bodies be compliant with the (equality) law by consisting collecting, only where relevant, personal details of patients such as race, sex and sexual orientation. They do not have to do it in every area, people do not have to answer the questions and it will have no impact on the care they receive,” highlights an NHS spokesperson.

Some opine that such questions can cause tension between GPs and patients

Dr Michael Dixon, chairman of the College of Medicine, who has also advised the government on clinical commissioning, fears that the changes will cause some GPs to worry that it could affect the good relationship they have with their patients.

“It might threaten a relationship between GPs and their patients. It’s a bit like saying to your doctor “I have a sore throat”, and they ask to check your feet.”

“I just think there’s a problem because there’s a time and a place. At some times, it might be appropriate to ask such a question, and other times, it’s entirely inappropriate,” adds Dr Dixon.

Supporting his statement is Chairman of the UK’s Family Doctor Association, Dr Peter Swinyard who believes that sexuality orientation does not affect health outcomes or care, and that GP would ask about the matter if it was relevant to their medical condition.

"Given the precious short amount of time a GP has with a patient, sexuality is not relevant."

In addition, Dr Swinyard believes that it can be “potentially offensive and intrusive” for GP’s to monitor patient’s sexuality.

He also says that there were "relatively few medical conditions" that are affected by a patient’s sexual orientation.

Higher mental health woes among LGBT adults

A 2016 study recommending doctors recording patients’ sexuality discovered that both young and old LGBT adults have a higher tendency in facing poor mental health compared to their heterosexual counterparts.

“A patient’s sexuality can potentially have an impact on some aspects of their healthcare,” remarks Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.

“So, it is certainly helpful for a GP to know [a patient’s sexual orientation] so that we can take it into account when making a diagnosis or recommending treatments. But, it should always be a patient’s choice whether to disclose this information.”

NHS guideline requires GPs to ask questions; but still allow patients to choose whether they want to answer or not.

LGBT charity, Stonewall, welcomed the new guideline – seeing it as a big step forward for the LGBT community.

“We have been calling for sexual orientation to be considered as other protected characteristics for over a decade. This move will also help health services gather evidence on, and understand the needs of LGB people,” asserts Stonewall.

Stonewall reported that nearly half (48%) of trans people below 26 years old said they had attempted suicide, and 30% claimed they had done so in the past year. Photo credit: Pink News
Stonewall reported that nearly half (48%) of trans people below 26 years old said they had attempted suicide, and 30% claimed they had done so in the past year. Photo credit: Pink News

The charity body also vowed to work with NHS to improve healthcare for the LGBT community.

"We'd also like to see NHS England introduce similar gender identity monitoring for trans and non-binary patients where appropriate. We look forward to working with NHS England on these issues in the future."

Patients still comes first

Paul Martin, chief executive of Manchester's LGBT Foundation, which worked with NHS England and others to develop sexual orientation monitoring, said he was "so proud" of the new standard – but, admits that some people will feel uncomfortable being asked.

To minimise the problem, the foundation warns, “"It would not be appropriate to ask someone's sexual orientation out loud in a busy reception area."

Patients who do not wish to reveal their sexuality will be recorded as not stated and will not be treated with bias. On the other hand, patients who are not able to state their sexual orientation; e.g. if they require specialist mental capacity care, would be recorded as "not known".

Prof Stokes-Lampard, who works as a physician in Lichfield, states that “We would like to reassure patients that any information they tell their GP is completely confidential, and we are highly trained to have non-judgmental conversations about all issues that might be affecting their health and well-being. Therefore, we would encourage outpatients to disclose anything that they think may be relevant.” MIMS

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