When friends used to ask Justin Neisler about finding Augusta physicians experienced with treating gay and lesbian patients, giving advice was never easy.
“Friends would come to me that needed a doctor, and I couldn’t tell them where to go,” said Neisler, a fourth-year Medical College of Georgia student at Georgia Regents University. “I felt heartbroken and absolutely useless as a professional that I couldn’t help them.”
Despite its dynamic medical industry, Augusta, like most cities, has lacked a specialized health clinic and the physicians trained to accommodate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients, leaving many in the community with few options.
After seeing the need firsthand, Neisler and a group of about 10 medical students have set out to change that.
After a year of planning, the students will launch the Equality Clinic on the GRU campus Sept. 10. The free clinic will offer primary care services in an environment free from judgment or discrimination.
The clinic will target LGBT patients but will be open to anybody below the 200 percent poverty level and those uninsured or underinsured.
The Equality Clinic will be the first health care center in Georgia to specifically target the LGBT community, although clinics across the state have changed policies and increased training to better serve gay patients, according to Linda Ellis, the executive director of The Health Initiative in Atlanta.
“LGBT individuals, particularly those who live in more rural areas, are often hesitant to access health care for fear of being discriminated against,” Ellis said in an e-mail. “That delay can often lead to more progressed diagnoses, costlier treatment and worse outcomes. Lives and money can be saved if LGBT individuals can feel safe in accessing basic primary care and screenings. GRU’s Equality Clinic is providing just that.”
In a 2010 study by Lambda Legal, researchers found 56 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual patients had been refused care, blamed for their health status, physically or verbally abused by a provider, or refused to be touched by medical staff.
Hector Vargas, the executive director of GLMA – Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality, said much of the discrimination comes from a lack of training and awareness among providers on how to treat these patients.
Medical schools are not required to educate students about LGBT health care, and most provide less than five hours of such training, he said.
“I think it’s huge for a population like Augusta to have this kind of clinic,” Vargas said. “For Augusta, whose LGBT community isn’t as visible, to have a place where they have some comfort and assurance the providers who are responsible for taking care of their health are not only welcoming but also have an understanding of the specific health needs they face is huge.”
The Equality Clinic will see patients the second Wednesday of every month beginning Sept. 10. It will be housed in GRU’s Interdisciplinary Practice and Research Center on St. Sebastian Way and will share the building with Clinica Latina, a free clinic that has operated for years in a different location.
Neisler said students running the clinic will be trained in the health needs of the LGBT community and will be educated on how to make the environment a welcoming place. David Kriegel, the director for student education in the department of family medicine, will serve as medical director.
Kriegel said the clinic will offer the standard services found in a primary care center such as physicals, preventative health screenings and treatment for acute illnesses.
He said the clinic is also working to add a mental health component, to provide services for transgender patients who are seeking counseling and to help patients with other mental health needs.
Kyle Friez, a second-year MCG student, said the main goal is to make patients feel welcome and comfortable when many might have been discriminated against in other settings.
He said the clinic will be helping more than just the patients. Student volunteers will get a chance to work in an interdisciplinary setting alongside other nursing, physician assistant and medical students, while also practicing patient care skills.
“It reminds you of why you went to medical school and sat through lectures all day,” Friez said. “When it comes down to it, it’s about the patient, and it’s great to see you’re making a difference.”