The NHS has failed to provide adequate care for and information to lesbian and bisexual women, a recent survey shows.
Prescription for Change was conducted by gay equality organisation Stonewall and De Montfort University.
They interviewed more than 6,000 lesbians and bisexual women for the survey, the biggest of its kind outside the US.
Focusing on women’s health, it asked questions about health checks, drugs, smoking, alcohol and obesity.
It claims that the UK’s healthcare workers lack knowledge of lesbian and bisexual women’s sexual practices.
This alienates lesbian and bisexual women and their conditions are misdiagnosed or are left to suffer in silence.
“Lesbian and gay taxpayers fund 60,000 posts within the NHS”, said Stonewall’s chief executive Ben Summerskill.
“Yet with the marked exception of gay men’s sexual health, their specific health needs are almost invisible.”
49% of the people interviewed have not come out to their GP, for fears that they may be discriminated against.
Since April 2007, it has been unlawful for public services to discriminate against lesbians and bisexual women.
However, half of those questioned reported some negative experience of healthcare in the last year.
One in ten lesbian and bisexual women said that when they came out to a health worker, they were either ignored or faced hostility.
“Healthcare workers continually assume I am heterosexual and ask inappropriate questions about my relationships,” said Maya, from the South West.
“I am often lectured about safe sex and preventing pregnancy without being given a chance to say that I do not sleep with men anymore.”
Morgan, 37, from the North West, said:
“In the course of an interview about my pelvic floor muscles, I mentioned to a physiotherapist that I used a dildo and she refused to talk to me after that!”
Even when accepting, healthcare workers do not seem to know much about the lifestyles of lesbians and bisexual women.
Abigail from London was not amused by the lack of answers from a nurse:
“I asked her whether penetrative sex with toys was risky in respective of cervical cancer or whether the risk factor only related to penetration by a penis. She had no idea.”
Four per cent of lesbian and bisexual women have been told by healthcare workers that they do not need a test for sexually transmitted infections.
However, a quarter of the 6,000 respondents have tested positive for an STI.
One in five lesbian and bisexual women were told that they did not need a smear test.
37,000 lesbian and bisexual have been refused a smear test, even though they requested one.
This misleading information has led to one in five lesbian and bisexual women thinking that they are not at risk of cervical cancer.
Not only does the healthcare system find it hard to comprehend the physical needs of lesbian and bisexual women, their mental health has been severely neglected as well.
In the last year, five per cent of lesbians and bisexual women said that they have attempted to take their own life: sixteen per cent of women under the age of 20 have attempted suicide.
One in five lesbian and bisexual women who have self-harmed in the last year did so by swallowing pills or objects.
Mind, the mental health charity has said that one in twenty of the general population has an eating disorder.
Stonewall’s survey suggests that one in five lesbian and bisexual women have had, or have been told that they have some form of eating disorder.
Seven per cent of those who said to have such disorders have had anorexia now or in the past. According to Mind, only one per cent of the general population has been diagnosed with anorexia.
The survey suggests that this neglect is due to the lack of education and discriminatory behaviour by healthcare workers.
Orla from London tells of her experience:
“I went to my doctor with a stress-related illness and mentioned that coming out to my family has been a recent source of stress.
“He responded by telling me that his sister had recently come out, and told me we was still revolted by it. He didn’t seem to have any awareness that this might have an impact on my reaction to him.”
However, the survey found that lesbians and bisexual women are in better physical shape than heterosexual women.
26 per cent of lesbian and bisexual women are overweight, compared to 32 per cent of heterosexual women.
Two thirds of lesbian and bisexual women smoke or have smoked, compared to half of women in general.
Nine in ten lesbian and bisexual women drink, and 40 per cent of them drink three times a week, compared to a quarter of women in general.
They are also five times more likely to have taken drugs; one in ten have taken cocaine, compared to 3 per cent on the heterosexual women.
Not only is there a lack of knowledge in the healthcare system about lesbian and bisexual women, there have been complaints that the NHS has failed to provide inclusive services.
One in four lesbians and bisexual women have experienced domestic violence, and one in twenty five said they had experienced death threats.
Thirteen per cent of lesbian and bisexual women also say that they have been frightened that they will be hurt.
Despite these threats, eight in ten of those who have experienced domestic violence never reported the incident to the police.
Out of those who had, only half were satisfied with how the police dealt with their situation.
In order to correct this, Stonewall proposes that the NHS should give compulsory and regular training to its healthcare workers and that institutions should stop making assumptions that all women are straight.
There should be an increased support for lesbians and bisexual women to help them feel as though they are part of society and know where they can get help.
According from Tola from London, simply putting up “gay-friendly posters and leaflets in hospitals and GP surgeries and information on lesbian, gay and bisexual specific services” could make a difference.
Out of the 6,000 people interviewed, 81 per cent said that they were lesbian, and 16 per cent bisexual.
85 percent lived in England, 9 per cent in Scotland and 5 percent in Wales. 82 per cent of the respondents are white British, and the rest are from ethnic minorities.
The survey also covered a wide range of demographics; the youngest respondent being 14 years old and the eldest 84.
For more information, please visit www.stonewall.org.uk/lesbianhealth