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21 Sep 2015

Victoria Berquist, the President of the Monash University Medical Undergraduates' Society

I have been delighted to be involved with Out for Australia, an organisation working for young LGBTIQ professionals to feel comfortable in the workplace. The opportunity has provided myself, a medical student, a tentative step into the corporate world due to the commerce, economics and law grounding of the organisation. I have attended LGBTIQ events generously sponsored by companies such as Westpac, Goldman Sachs, and NAB, through which I have experienced the aggressive push for corporate diversity firsthand.

These companies promote diversity in recruitment, and have LGBTIQ networks to embrace and support their employees. Beyond Australian Lesbian Medical Association, it is difficult to identify these groups or recruitment practices in health care. Does medicine as a profession, and its employers, not see the value in actively encouraging and facilitating the diversity that the corporate does?

Metrics such as the Australian Workplace Equality Index have encouraged corporates to do what they do best – reach the top. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a leader of the Index, prides itself on initiatives including facilitating transitioning in the workplace and promoting gender-neutral information with clients.

Diversity makes business sense, with research showing a 1 per cent increase in gender diversity correlates with a 3 per cent gain in revenue. The same increase in racial diversity shows a 9 per cent gain. Benefits extend to improved reputation and innovation. Diversity within these companies does not arrive passively – to reap the benefits, concerted effort is made.

In contrast, diversity is not publicly prioritised in health services. There are certainly resource differences between the private and public sector, but promoting and supporting diversity and networks does not have to be costly. Leadership and prioritisation is required.

For minority employees, promoting diversity in the workplace is important. Many individuals stay in the closet at work due to fears of discrimination. Media attention has highlighted that medicine can be a difficult field for minorities in craft groups. It is therefore not a stretch to consider the trepidation that exists for LGBTIQ individuals. The Australian Psychological Society recently presented research noting that “informal” discrimination regarding LGBTIQ individuals, including jokes or exclusion, remains prevalent in the workplace despite improvements in legal rights and societal opinions.

This is particularly important when LGBTIQ individuals experience higher rates of mental health issues than the general population. Promotion and facilitation of diversity is key for employees to feel happy and safe to be themselves. Individuals feel more confident, motivated, and are more productive when they are in an environment accepting of their sexuality.

Most importantly, diversity in medicine affects our patients. Healthcare inequities exist among minority groups including LGBTIQ individuals. Having a diverse spread of healthcare professionals can improve healthcare outcomes. Promotion of diversity in health care may lead to improvements in quality & culturally competent care for minorities, shift culturally homogenous health research practices to more broadly reflect the population, and provide a diverse leadership base to push further inclusion of minority groups in the healthcare profession and agenda.

It is also a matter of safety in understanding. I have experienced this personally in the form of a procedurally routine pregnancy test intentionally skipped after noting I had dated women in casual conversation. Any sexual and reproductive history was overlooked, which could have (theoretically) provided reason to administer the test. A shift towards a more diverse workplace is key for equitable and safer health care through greater understanding.

There is a need for structural support and strategies for diversity. In business, to be effective in diversity, CEOs must encourage it in their day-to-day practice and make it a priority of the company at all levels. In medicine, all levels, including student leaders, universities, CMOs, and hospital CEOs, must actively promote and support diversity if we are to see our workforce reflect the world around us.

Diversity is valuable to doctors, patients, and employers in the medical workforce. Through promotion and support of diversity, through communities and recruitment practices, we can see change we are looking for in terms of more equitable health care for all.

Published: 21 Sep 2015