Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 01:16 UK

Lesbian health problems 'ignored'

Lesbian women may getting inaccurate advice

The long-term health of some lesbian and bisexual women is at risk because the NHS is not meeting their needs, say campaigners.

A survey of more than 6,000 lesbian and bisexual women, by charity Stonewall, revealed many had never had a cervical smear, or a test for sex infections.

Some reported NHS staff had wrongly told them they were "not at risk".

A government spokesman said it took "health inequalities" seriously, and planned to work with Stonewall.

This provides a 'wake-up call' to healthcare practitioners across the country
Ruth Hunt

Stonewall said that the survey results showed that lesbian and bisexual women were less likely to approach the NHS, and less likely to receive appropriate advice when they did.

Two thirds of those questioned by De Montfort University researchers said they had smoked at some point - a significantly higher proportion than women in the general population.

Lesbian and bisexual women were also five times more likely to have used recreational drugs.

The survey also suggested that mental health problems were far more common among lesbian and bisexual women.

One in five reported having harmed themselves during the past year, and 5% said they had tried to take their own lives - a much higher rate than in the general population.

Lesbian and bisexual women have a significant risk of sexually-transmitted infection, but fewer than half had been tested in the past five years. Half of those tested were found to have an infection.

However, 4% said that a healthcare worker had advised them they did not need a test.

Smear fear

The same was true in cervical screening, with 15% of over 25-year-olds revealing they had never had a test, compared with 7% in the general population.

One in five of those who had never received one had been told by NHS staff that it was unnecessary because they had never had sex with a man, and a few had been refused a test.

Stonewall's Ruth Hunt, one of the study authors, said: "This provides a 'wake-up call' to healthcare practitioners across the country.

"It demonstrates that hundreds of thousands of lesbian and bisexual women feel highly uncomfortable about engaging with the NHS."

Dr Catherine Mercer, from University College London, who has researched the sexual health risks facing lesbian and bisexual women, said that it was important that doctors were trained not to make assumptions about the sexual behaviour of women.

"Our research showed that women who have sex with women often have also had sex with men in the recent past, so even if a woman is saying that she is a lesbian, she can still be at higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases."

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that it took seriously any differences in health between different groups, and pledged to work with Stonewall.

"We welcome this research. It provides valuable evidence about the health needs of lesbian and bisexual women."

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