Clinic Settles Anti-Gay Bias Complaint by Washington Heights Resident

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Procedures to be reviewed with staff after patient's sexual orientation was labeled a "problem'
February 9, 2000

NEW YORK, February 9, 2000) — A clinic affiliated with the New York Presbyterian Hospital has settled a complaint by a 25-year-old gay man whose doctor made inappropriate references to his sexual orientation in medical records – even placing it on a "Problem List" usually reserved for ailments or diagnoses – while being treated for allergies, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said Wednesday.

"When I walked into the doctor's office, I expected to be healed, not wounded. Only after being repeatedly hounded about my sexual orientation did I tell the doctor that I was gay," said Shawn Smith, a Washington Heights resident who had sought treatment for allergies last year at the hospital's Broadway Clinic. "From then on, I felt as if my doctor believed my sexual orientation was, in and of itself, a health risk. I was even more outraged when I found references to my sexual orientation on my medical records and referral slips," he added.

In June of last year, Smith filed a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission against the medical staff of the clinic for discrimination based on his sexual orientation and perceived HIV status. At Smith's request, Lambda became involved in August and negotiated the settlement between him and the clinic's managing corporation, the Washington Heights-Inwood Ambulatory Care Network.

Clinic officials have agreed to pay Smith $1,000 in compensation and pledged to have the clinic review with all its medical personnel the proper methods for taking a patient's medical history. Smith's complaint will also be given further consideration by the clinic's Quality Improvement Committee.

Added Smith, "It is hard to convey the level of distress I felt when confronted with my doctor's assumption that my sexual orientation was detrimental to my health."

"While identifying as gay or lesbian can be important in building trust and familiarity with a doctor, simply being gay does not put a person at special risk for any diseases. Health care providers must understand that for everyone, it is what you do, not who you are, that affects your health status," said Lambda Staff Attorney Doni Gewirtzman.

Added Gewirtzman,"We are pleased with the settlement and are hopeful that other medical institutions get the message that medical personnel must understand that a patient's sexual orientation should not affect the treatment he or she receives."

The settlement comes less than a year after the New York City Department of Health issued a report recommending increased training of medical professionals who serve gay and lesbian patients. The report specifically addressed the medical importance of distinguishing between a patient's sexual behavior and sexual identity.

"Gay and lesbian people should be able to speak candidly to their doctors about their lives," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. "Other medical care providers throughout the country should follow the lead of this Washington Heights clinic and take steps to ensure that their staffs are free of bias in how they diagnose, treat, and document the health of lesbian and gay patients," she added.

Lambda is that nation's oldest and largest legal organization defending the civil rights of lesbians, gay men and people with HIV/AIDS.

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CONTACT: Travis Tu 212-809-8585 x 222, 888-987-1971 (pager), Doni Gewirtzman 212-809-8585, ext. 242

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