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Lesbians and bisexual women being overlooked

The first major survey ever conducted into lesbian and bisexual women's health in Britain reveals deeply disturbing levels of self-harm, substance abuse and exclusion from routine testing for cervical cancer.

Prescription for Change, a survey of 6,000 lesbian and bisexual women by charity Stonewall, suggests that health services are failing to identify specific healthcare needs among Britain's 1.8 million lesbian population. They are also failing to address specific mental health needs that many women still experience as a result of discrimination.

Ruth Hunt, Stonewall Head of Policy and Research, said: "This vital new intelligence provides a wake-up call to healthcare practitioners across the country. It also demonstrates that hundreds of thousands of lesbian and bisexual women feel highly uncomfortable when engaging with the NHS.

"Women who are deterred from visiting their GP, or coming out to them, are less likely to be treated early and appropriately with inevitably higher costs for the NHS when accurate diagnosis finally takes place."

The survey, the biggest of its kind ever conducted outside America, provides unique new statistics on the mental health, drinking and drug use of lesbian and bisexual women in Britain in 2008:

  • One in five lesbian and bisexual women have deliberately harmed themselves in the last year, compared to 0.4% of the general population. Young lesbian and bisexual women are 10 times more likely to have self-harmed compared with others - half of women under 20 have self-harmed compared with one in 15 of teenagers generally.
  • Lesbian and bisexual women under 20 are eight times more likely to have attempted to take their life than teenagers generally.
  • Lesbian and bisexual women are five times more likely to have taken drugs than women generally. Forty per cent drink three times a week compared with a quarter of women in general.

New legislative protections introduced in 2007 made it unlawful to discriminate against lesbian and bisexual women in the delivery of public services, yet half still report having had negative experiences in the health sector in the last year.

One in five who have not had a cervical smear test have been told, wrongly, by healthcare practitioners that they are not at risk. One in 50 have been refused a test. Fifteen per cent of lesbian and bisexual women over 25 - almost double the number of women in general - have never had a cervical smear test.

Ben Summerskill, Stonewall Chief Executive, said: "Lesbian and gay taxpayers fund 60,000 posts within the NHS. What lesbian and bisexual women have revealed should disturb any healthcare practitioner and encourage the NHS to take their statutory obligations towards these women more seriously.

"This report also provides compelling evidence that the current duty on health services to provide equality of treatment on grounds of gender, ethnicity and disability should be extended to sexual orientation."

The report includes 10 key recommendations for the NHS to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery for lesbian and bisexual patients.

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.


Does sexual orientation routinely arise during consultations? Do you treat lesbian and bisexual women differently from heterosexual women? Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)

"Whether or not vaginal penetration has occured is irrelevant. I've been having smears since before I'd lost my virginity. As a lesbian and a healthcare professional I am still staggered to find that each time I go to my own professioin for help or advice it is ALWAYS assumed that I'm heterosexual, it really doesn't help." - Catherine, North Wales

"NO, but of the few ladies who have attempted to have a smear taken and have not had male pentration have not been able to tolerate the procedure and refused to proceeed." - Annie, West Midlands