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Creating a Culture of Diversity and Belonging with Patients, Part II: How to Use Inclusive Language

Some patients may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual or have another sexual or gender identity (LGBTQIA+). These patients may have encountered hate for being their authentic selves, rejection from people they trusted and therefore, may be scared or uncomfortable coming into a new environment. We want our centers to always be a safe space and a caring community for all our patients, so it is important that we show these patients we care about and respect them.

One important way to create a place of belonging is to use inclusive language. This post is the second in a series (following Creating a Culture of Diversity and Belonging with Patients, Part I: How to Talk with Patients about Events Related to Racial Injustice), and provides information on using inclusive language, so that LGBTQIA+ patients and care team members feel a part of centers’ communities.

As mentioned in the last post, you may feel pressure to try to be perfect and always have the right words to say. However, being there for patients in terms of openness and awareness can go further than having the “perfect” response. The following are some tips on how to be welcoming and respectful in communicating with your patients, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity:

  • Do not make assumptions about patients’ sexual relationships. Use gender-neutral terms such as “spouse,” “significant other” or “partner” instead of “husband or wife” or “boyfriend or girlfriend.” For example, “Do you have a partner or significant other whom I should call?”
  • Avoid addressing patients with gender-specific terms like “sir” or “ma’am.” Instead, say “How may I help you today?”
  • Politely ask if you are unsure about a patient’s name or preferred pronouns. Ask, “What name do you go by, and which pronouns do you prefer?” or “I want to be respectful—how would you like to be addressed?”
  • Ask respectfully about names if they do not match in your records. For example, ask “Could your chart be under a different name?”
  • Only ask for information that is necessary for providing care. Avoid asking questions to satisfy your curiosity.
  • Avoid pronouns or other gender-specific terms when referring to individual patients. If you know the name preferred by the patient, use it in place of pronouns. For example, say “Toby is here for an 11 o’clock appointment.” Or “Your patient is in the waiting room.”
  • Politely apologize if you make a mistake. Say, “I’m sorry I used the wrong pronoun—I didn’t mean to disrespect you.”

LGBTQIA+ patients may have additional or different clinical needs than a heterosexual patient or a patient whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth, known as cisgender. Discussing these needs is beyond the scope of this blog post; however, resources for addressing some of the clinical needs for LGBTQIA+ patients are available through the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center, which can be accessed here: https://www.lgbtqiahealtheducation.org/resources/.

Please be patient as you educate yourself on LGBTQIA+ terminology and other topics related to diversity. Then, together with your colleagues, strive to make your center a place of belonging for all patients.

Amber Pace, LCSW

Amber Pace, LCSW

Amber Pace is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Addiction Counselor whose passion is building successful teams who provide great care to patients, improving the quality of life they experience. Amber joins DaVita from Centura Health, where she most recently led development and growth of a 26-site integrated primary care behavioral health program. Prior to Centura, she served patients as a clinician at Jefferson Center for Mental Health and began her career with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in downtown Denver. Amber is also an Adjunct Faculty at University of Denver, where she teaches in the Graduate School of Social Work (SW). At DaVita, Amber is working with our national SW team to advance our focus on counseling and serving the behavioral health needs of our patients in our clinics and as part of our integrated kidney care programs.