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Stories: Voices from the frontline

Kevin Wang, M.D.

Kevin Wang, M.D., teaches compassion and leads with empathy.

Both have been a priority for Dr. Wang throughout his time as a faculty member at the Swedish Family Medicine First Hill Residency Program. But they’ve become especially important since he became the medical director for our new LGBTQI+ Initiative.

Surveys have shown that overwhelming numbers of medical school students graduate with limited knowledge of LGBTQI health care. Dr. Wang is committed to finding ways for Swedish and his team to pick up the slack, by identifying opportunities for meeting the specific needs of the LGBTQI+ community.

He hopes this one-year initiative, which started in early 2020, will not only improve care for our patients, but also begin a dialogue. “Too often, we expect patients to come to us,” he says. “We need to shift the way we provide care and begin going to them, where they feel safe.”

In what ways should we be caring for the LGBTQI+ community that would be different from serving any other patient population?

It starts with providing care in an inclusive and supportive environment, from making sure our policies are LGBTQI+ inclusive to having patient care navigators who can provide resources and referrals if there are services we can't provide within our own health care system.

On the medical side, there are still a lot of providers out there who are uncomfortable with hormonal therapy for our transgender and non-binary patients. It's something we're not really taught in medical school or in a lot of residency programs.

Can you give me an example of how we can create an inclusive, supportive environment?

It can be little things. Whenever I go in and meet with a new patient, I often say, "Hi, my name is Kevin Wang, and I use he/him pronouns," to let people know I identify as male. For somebody who identifies as cisgender, they may just say, "Oh, okay. No big deal." But for somebody who may be questioning their gender identity or for somebody who identifies as a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth, it begins to open doors.

Other ways include having more inclusive patient-facing materials and policies. We could have gender-neutral language, particularly in areas that are typically gendered, such as the labor and delivery floor.  Our clinics could be more inclusive by having diverse representation in our brochures. Our registration forms can have open-ended questions for gender and sexuality. The potential to make our clinical environments more inclusive is endless.

If we strive to care for our patients with compassion and dignity, shouldn't we already be meeting the needs of any community?

The providers at Swedish do a really great job of providing empathic and inclusive care, but some people may not know the history of how or why health care disparities arose in the LGBTQI+ community. So we say we want to provide compassionate, empathic care to every person, but the medical setting has not always been the safest place for marginalized patients.

Are you gay?

Yes, and I am proud to identity as a gay family physician who just so happens to be cis-gender male and a child of Chinese immigrants. 

Do you have any personal experience with not receiving empathic care?

When I was younger and I was still struggling with my sexuality, my doctor would say things such as, "Have you dated any girls yet? Are there any girls who catch your eye?" So I would think, "Maybe I should only be looking at girls. Maybe this whole ‘liking guys’ thing is totally wrong."

I don't want to give people the same experience, which is making these automatic assumptions.  I do the best I can knowing I’m going to make mistakes.  I’m hoping my patients will feel comfortable enough with me to point out my biases and assumptions to help me become a better healthcare provider.

We're almost at the midpoint of this year-long initiative. What kind of progress have we made so far?

We've been talking with other health care organizations and community-based organizations to get an idea of how we can work together to support our LGBTQI+ community.

I've also spoken with people at Harvard, the University of Michigan, Oregon Health & Sciences University and New York City Health & Hospitals. A lot of these folks are really open to sharing information to address how we can better serve our LGBTQI+ community within Swedish. Those places focus primarily on transgender health care services, but I would like to make ours more comprehensive by optimizing our current resources to serve the entire Queer community. Do I have a grander vision? Absolutely. And I hope to present my ideas to Swedish at the end of our initiative.

So what’s next?

Swedish just asked me to join their social justice subcommittee. I think this initiative—in combination with the social justice committees Swedish is creating and their search for somebody to lead our diversity, equity and inclusion work—is going to go way beyond just the LGBTQI+ community. Swedish really wants to better understand how we can provide care for all marginalized populations. Let's start thinking about how we can provide better care to refugees and immigrants, people for whom English is not their primary language, people with different physical and mental abilities. I'm really excited to see what doors open once we deliver our plan to Swedish.