How the “next phase” of LGBTQ+ student support is stirring at this Ivy League

"This is the next phase of how to address what we might call a social conversation, a social problem, a current issue that needs all hands on deck," says Jessica Halem, former LGBTQ+ director at Harvard Medical School and current senior director of Eidos, UPenn's in-house consultancy.

Colleges and universities nationwide have incrementally ramped up initiatives around their campuses to help their LGBTQ+ students feel seen, heard and supported. Efforts have ranged from providing LGBTQ+-inclusive housing to scholarships and sports teams. With students coming ever closer to relaxing into their safe space, one prestigious university has identified the next step in supporting not just queer students—but members of society beyond.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Eidos LGBTQ+ Health initiative invites its schools, colleges and even third-party telehealth companies to address the current cultural gaps in healthcare that preclude its professionals from adequately caring for a growing demographic of the U.S. population.

“This is the next phase of how to address what we might call a social conversation, a social problem, a current issue that needs all hands on deck,” says Jessica Halem, former LGBTQ+ director at Harvard Medical School and current senior director of Eidos. “From the president and provost of the university, we are charged with the goal of engaging as many different experts and students to come together to address LGBTQ+ health solutions.”

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The growing need for LGBTQ+ healthcare

The percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as something other than heterosexual is 7.1% as of 2022, double the rate it was a decade prior. That number is only poised to grow in the coming years; roughly 21% of Gen Z Americans and 11% of Millennials identify as LGBTQ+, according to a Gallup poll.

However, the proportion of U.S. adults identifying somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is outpacing philanthropic support for this demographic. For every $100 awarded by U.S. foundations in 2020, only 23 cents specifically supported LGBTQ communities and issues, according to data analyzed from Giving USA 2021 by Funders for LGBTQ Issues. Additionally, only 0.1% of all NIH-funded studies concerned LGBTQ+ health—excluding projects about HIV/AIDS and other sexual health matters, according to the National Library of Medicine.

Consequently, doctors and overall healthcare systems unaware of their queer patients’ sexual practices and personal challenges are unlikely to know what potential ailments to screen for that are specific to this community. LGBTQ+ individuals are prone to certain cancers around the throat and sexual organs, says Halem. Lesbian and bisexual women are also more prone to worse heart health, according to Medical News Today.

“You can’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum when it comes to the sexual health, social needs and sensitivity of important things like cancer screenings,” Halem says. “Do people know when a transgender woman who takes estrogen needs to have a breast exam?”

The need to address this community intertwines with the country’s pronounced efforts to meet the growing demand for U.S. nurses.

How UPenn is applying the Eidos framework

Leveraging Eidos’ education, research and social enterprise with regard to the queer community, UPenn is geared to connect its students with LGBTQ+ faculty and staff to work on projects inside and outside of the community. The primary way this initiative aims to fight existing gaps in healthcare is by improving the cultural competency of medical staff.

For example, the school of dentistry aims to be the No. 1 school in the nation, integrating patient data pertaining to their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI data collection, for short). Professionals will collect the data via patient records and survey forms, and the style in which they speak with patients will be relayed to UPenn students to inform them of the best cultural practices.

Outside of the university, UPenn and Eidos are working with Violet, a start-up health equity platform, to develop their pedagogy on LGBTQ+ cultural competency. One of Violet’s top clients is TimelyCare, the popular telehealth company for colleges and universities.

“Not only do I get to develop myself as an out and proud professional, but I’m also getting to make an actual impact in the field of LGBTQ health,” Halem says.

Working across departments on one healthcare mission

Working successfully with multi-million dollar healthcare tech startups such as Violet and other giants UPenn cannot disclose takes more than a surgeon with a scalpel to complete, Halem says. “If I’m going to influence this generation of multimillion-dollar startups, I need to speak the language of business, engineering, communications and marketing—as well as medicine.”

This is the magic of Eidos: It’s incentivizing the entire institution to work together to break down the complexities of a start-up-university collaboration, inviting LGBTQ+ students from far and wide to work on real-world issues in healthcare.

Eidos’ initial funding came from a broader initiative spearheaded by former president Amy Gutmann, which invested $750 million into innovation and impact in the sciences, engineering and medicine. While its funding has helped cultivate frictionless collaboration across the institution, Halem believes the next step is taking hands with institutions elsewhere.

“We are being judged by our impact. The funding will continue to come to us if I can show the real-world impact that I have had on LGBTQ+ people’s lives. And if that means working across institutions, then bring it on.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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