Garofalo talks LGBT youth health, advocacy at UIC

Garofalo at UIC. Photo: Joseph Duggan Lyons.

Dr. Robert Garofalo spoke to about 50 students at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Medicine Wednesday about the health of LGBT youth as a part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Health Week at the school.

Garofalo, considered to be national expert on the health of LGBT youth and HIV-positive youth, is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the director of Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Center for Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention. He was also the director of research and adolescent medicine until early 2011 at Howard Brown Health Center.

Asking the students, “Are we at a tipping point?” Garofalo presented information on the Institute of Medicine’s consensus report on LGBT health that found researchers “still have a great deal to learn” about the health of LGBT people.

The Institute of Medicine was founded under the congressional charter of the National Academy of Science. Its mission is to provide national advice to improve the health in the United States.

Garofalo served on the committee that wrote the IOM consensus report. He said the report can be considered a “tipping point” because it will allow him and other researchers to more easily advocate for the well-being of LGBT individuals through research. In the past most studies about LGBT people were done with HIV research and what Garofalo called “deficit dollars,” funding focused on studying other problems LGBT people face like suicide, homelessness and substance abuse.

The IOM consensus report identified research gaps and opportunities, and it outlined a research agenda for the National Institutes of Health.

The report also recommended that data should be collected on all federally funded surveys administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, Garofalo said.

“We can’t even begin to describe the disparities until we’re part of the federally funded surveys,” Garofalo said. “The report is exactly what this community needed. We had lots of advocates but what we didn’t have was a scientific document to back up our advocacy work. Now it’s tougher to push the advocacy aside.”

HIV remains the number one health disparity for LGBT youth, according to Garofalo. Young gay men and transgender women bear the burden of new transmissions, he added. The consensus report will hopefully lead to new, more nuanced studies that look at possible risk factors like older partners, the internet, substance use and racial and ethnic differences.

Sean Goodin, a second year medical student and president of Queers & Allies, the School of Medicine’s LGBT student group, said Garofalo was asked to give the lecture because of recent news of suicides and other health concerns for LGBT youth as an underserved population.

Alison Wathen, who is working on her Masters of Public Health at UIC in maternal and child health, said she was pleased to hear about the IOM report.

“I’m going to go home and read it this weekend,” Wathen said. “That’s a huge step forward for the community. It makes my work easier going into public health. I can show that work around LGBT health is necessary.”

Find out more about LGBTQ Health Week from UIC Pride.