Gay men’s health advocates are working to turn a groundbreaking report into a province-wide health strategy for gay and bisexual men in BC.
The report, released in July 2014 by BC’s health officer Perry Kendall, is the first to specifically focus on gay and bisexual men’s health in the province.
It highlights the fact that gay and bi men still account for a disproportionate number of new HIV cases in BC, and offers six recommendations to reduce HIV rates and renew prevention efforts.
Among these recommendations: a call to develop a comprehensive provincial health strategy for gay and bisexual men.
One of the goals, says Jody Jollimore, is to make health care more accessible to gay men across BC, so they don’t need to come to Vancouver to find more understanding doctors.
“I recently met a young gay guy from Castlegar who always goes back there because that’s his home and he loves it there,” Jollimore says. “Why shouldn’t a guy like that be able to stay in the place he was born and loves — and still get equitable services? Why should he have to move to Vancouver to feel safe and have a doctor who understands gay men’s health?”
A conference in Kelowna in May 2015 aimed to help health care providers in BC’s Interior provide better care to men who have sex with men.
“A lot of people I’ve talked to say they don’t actually disclose their sexual orientation to their health care providers,” presenter Wilbur Turner told Daily Xtra at the time. “There’s a general kind of feeling among many of them because of bad experiences and some unpleasant situations, where they haven’t been treated nicely by medical receptionists and medical professionals.”
“In the past I’ve referred people to my own doctor,” he said, “but he’s now moving to Vancouver so I don’t have the answer.”
Jollimore hopes to complete an action plan by the end of March 2016. Hired by the provincial working group to implement Kendall’s report, he’s been working with representatives from every regional health authority to improve health services for gay and bi men in BC.
In early 2015, he conducted a services review for the Vancouver Island Health authority that resulted in 16 recommendations.
“The report is not publicly released but we have started to dialogue about how we are going to implement the 16 recommendations,” says Sophie Bannar-Martin from Island Health.
Two of the recommendations — physician training and an HIV and STI testing campaign — will launch in the next few months, she says.
She says health care professionals will learn how best to work with gay and bisexual patients. “They’ll learn how to create safe spaces and what language to utilize so they feel safe accessing services in Island Health.”
“We recognize there is still more work that needs to be done,” BC health minister Terry Lake wrote in an email statement to Daily Xtra.
“The burden of HIV is carried disproportionately by Aboriginal people and gay and bisexual men,” Lake acknowledges.
He says the health ministry is working with partners in Aboriginal and gay communities throughout the province to improve health care.
But Jollimore says Kendall’s report didn’t come with a budget to implement the recommended changes.
“That’s one of the limitations of this work,” he says, “so right now we’re concentrating on creating a plan, engaging people, and bringing stakeholders to the table.”
Part of the plan that’s emerging, he says, is to expand existing training programs and services to better include gay men and address their needs at next to no additional cost.
“I was having a conversation with a practice lead for mental health in the Interior,” he recalls. “Immediately a light bulb went off for her and she was like, ‘Ah trauma —everyone who does mental health-substance use work in the Interior has to take this trauma-informed practice course, and we spend a lot of time talking about First Nations Aboriginal Health but we never mention gay men.”
Jollimore has also begun to make connections in the Northern Health Authority, which covers two-thirds of the province.
“We’ve been . . . trying to engage the people who are already doing gay men’s health there to both inform and educate me, but also to make them feel like they’re connected to a greater gay men’s health movement,” he says.
“We recognize this is an area that is underserved,” says Northern Health spokesperson Jonathon Dyck.
Men who have sex with men account for fewer new cases of HIV in the north, he says. “Having said that, it is a population that we need to enhance our supports for, as we do for all HIV services across the north, and will continue to work towards this goal.”