Federal report on lesbian health point up need for more research

WASHINGTON -- A long-awaited report on lesbian health by the Institute of Medicine illustrates the need for more research even as it details the many barriers to conducting this important work, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

"This report is as important for what it doesn't say as for what it does say," said Kim I. Mills, HRC's director of education. "It reveals how little is really known about lesbian health issues and points up the need for much more research. We hope it will break down some of the barriers to more and better research into lesbian health, and that it will send a signal to private and public funding sources that this work is needed and valuable."

The report, entitled "Lesbian Health: Current Assessment and Directions for the Future," is the federal government's first comprehensive assessment of the research and issues surrounding the particular health needs of lesbians. It reviews research related to the physical and mental health of lesbians and examines what is known about lesbians' risks for conditions including cancer, mental illness, HIV infection, substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. The report also explains the difficulty in defining the term "lesbian" and thus finding representative sample populations to study, and it discusses reasons why lesbians might not be obtaining the health care they need.

"It is historic that the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine has recognized the importance of setting a lesbian health agenda within the context of women's and gay men's health," Mills added. "This publication establishes that lesbians have unique health needs and challenges the scientific community to learn more about them."

Many lesbians may be at greater risk for certain conditions, such as breast or cervical cancer, because it is believed they don't bear children at the same rate as heterosexual women, or because they may use more tobacco or alcohol, according to the report. "However, we still don't have sufficient data on any of these questions, which means the health care system is not meeting lesbians' needs because it has almost no idea what they are," Mill said.

Plus, the report notes, researchers believe that lesbians are less likely to access the health care system for a variety of reasons, including lack of insurance, insensitivity and/or homophobia by health care providers, and the growth of managed care systems that may limit lesbians' access to lesbian-friendly providers. In addition, the report notes that there is a stigma associated with conducting lesbian research.

"It is a disgrace that in 1999, researchers are afraid that their careers will be wrecked by studying lesbian health," Mills said. "We hope that this study will help change those attitudes and that the federal government and other funding sources will heed this report's recommendations and actively solicit the research it suggests."

The Human Rights Campaign is the largest national lesbian and gay political organization, with members throughout the country. It effectively lobbies Congress, provides campaign support, and educates the public to ensure that lesbian and gay Americans can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community.

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