Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Sunday, 8 February 2009

'It's much easier to be open now'

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Doctors: Pic credit: Samuel Ashfield/SPL
Some doctors still fear discrimination

When Dr Justin Varney started out in his medical career he was advised to become a GP, not because his skills were better suited to this particular branch of medicine, but because he was gay.

His tutors felt that a career in paediatrics, the area he was interested in at the time, would be inappropriate because of his sexuality.

Tutors said parents might not like him working with their children, nor might other staff.

Today, more than a decade later, attitudes have changed greatly and Dr Varney is a consultant in public health medicine with responsibility for the health of 40,000 children in the Barking and Dagenham area of London.

I felt it would be difficult to take up a post in certain hospital specialties because of my sexuality
Dr Justin Varney

Dr Varney, who is co-chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists (Gladd), explains that attitudes are very much improved.

"I was steered away from some specialties by some consultants who said people might not be too comfortable about me doing paediatrics as a gay man.

"I felt it would be difficult to take up a post in certain hospital specialties because of my sexuality. Genitourinary medicine has lots of gay doctors, orthopaedics does not."

Dr Varney was also advised that staff might be more prejudiced against having a gay doctor in general surgery and some parts of acute medicine.

"The phrase used was that these areas are 'less forgiving'."

Archaic views

He said most of the prejudice he experienced was in snide comments, relayed back to him by others.

But he said some colleagues, particularly as HIV/Aids became more prevalent, were more openly homophobic.

"I remember being in training in a workshop where another medical student said 'I think gay men should not be allowed to practise medicine because they are too much of of a risk' and then went on to give his views that gay men should all be put on an island and left to their own devices.

"I was very new and did not challenge it as I would today.

"What is sad is that when I was at medical school and doing my medical training I did come into contact with people who held very archaic views about sexual orientation.

"Some believed gay men were not fit to become doctors. "

'A long way to go'

A new report, published by the British Medical Association (BMA) to mark lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month this February, shows "attitudes are changing" he said.

Dr Varney, who is also a member of the BMA's equal opportunities committee, added: "Like the UK, the NHS has come a long way in recognising sexual and gender equality since it was founded in 1948.

"Many of the stories in the report show that LGBT doctors are out and proud at work and this is brilliant news, however, there are still accounts of discrimination which shows we still have a long way to go."

Dr John Lee
You kept your private life very separate unless you were very brave or foolish
Dr John Lee

Dr John Lee, 52, kept his sexuality secret when he started his medical career.

Today he is out and proud, but he says it was difficult.

"I qualified in 1980 when HIV and Aids and homosexuality were more of a controversial subject. You kept your private life very separate unless you were very brave or foolish.

"In fact I did not come out at work until I was in my mid-30s when I was a GP."

Dr Lee, associate specialist in genitourinary medicine (GUM) at the Josephine Butler Centre for Sexual Health at Clayton Hospital, Wakefield, said his gay patients were often more relaxed around a gay man as they felt he would better understand.

"Some of the gay male patients feel very inhibited about talking about their sexuality and feel it is nicer to talk to another gay man because they feel that I understand where they are coming from."

'Extra mile'

Dr Susan Bewley, consultant in obstetrics/maternal-foetal-medicine at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, London and fellow co-chairman of GLADD said there were still some cases of doctors facing discrimination, but that generally things are improving.

However, she said the NHS also needed to focus on the requirements of lesbian, gay and bisexual patients .

"The NHS needs to make a more positive effort.

"Evidence suggests that lesbians are more likely to fear going to their doctors, don't 'come-out' and can therefore neglect their health.

"Doctors need to 'go the extra mile' and reassure LGBT individuals that they will be treated equally."

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