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Commissioners – let’s do something about the unmet health needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual patients

Last month, Stonewall published the world's largest survey into the health needs of gay and bisexual men in Britain. With nearly 6,900 responses, the research provides evidence that the health needs of many gay and bisexual men are going unmet by the health system.

There are some areas of significant concern, most notably mental health and drug use. In the past year alone, three per cent of gay men attempted to take their own lives (rising to six per cent in those aged 16-24) and 50 per cent took illegal drugs. Shockingly, half of gay and bisexual men have experienced domestic abuse from a family member or partner since the age of 16.

One in three gay and bisexual men had a negative experience when accessing healthcare services in the past year, and just one in eight felt their partner was welcome at a routine consultation.

Our research into lesbian and bisexual women paints a similar picture, with 50 per cent under the age of 20 self-harming in the past year and 70 per cent experiencing inappropriate comments from healthcare workers when they disclosed their sexual orientation.

These are significant issues that need to be addressed by the NHS and taken seriously when designing health services. As commissioning groups begin to take shape and move through the authorisation process, it is vital – both for tackling the poor experience many lesbian, gay and bisexual people report, and for the distinct health needs many have – to actively work with the local gay community, designing and commissioning services that take their needs into account.

The Equality Act makes clear that public bodies, including commissioning groups, have a duty to take steps to proactively promote equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This is a legal responsibility, and is reflected in the authorisation process for groups to demonstrate compliance with. This includes proactively working with suppliers to promote sexual orientation equality when providing services.

There is also a responsibility to improve health outcomes and tackle health inequalities in the community a commissioning group serves. Stonewall's research, however, demonstrates that for many lesbian, gay and bisexual people there are significant health concerns that are not being addressed by health services.

Taking steps to promote equality and improve health outcomes need not be costly, in fact many cost next to nothing and can go a long way in improving the experience and health of lesbian, gay and bisexual people across the country. Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust for example, has started a campaign to tackle bullying and harassment with positive posters and images across all Trust sites. This activity to improve the experience of lesbian, gay and bisexual people report of the NHS can greatly reduce barriers to receiving appropriate care and treatment.

Stonewall has produced a guide for the NHS on sexual orientation equality, providing practical advice about how to meet the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people based on our work with dozens of NHS organisations across the country. At a time when the NHS is expected to save billions from its budget, this guide sets out clear cost-effective actions to support the NHS meet its legal responsibilities and tackle poor health outcomes.

James Taylor is senior health officer for Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity