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Physicians Call for an End to Conversion Therapy

August 07, 2019

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(Boston) — Conversion therapy is a broad term used to describe practices and actions aimed at changing people’s sexual orientation or gender identity - to turn anyone who doesn’t identify as “straight” into a “straight” person. Historically, conversion therapies have used electroshock therapy, chemical drugs, hormone administrations and even surgery. While these extreme practices are becoming rarer, many other harmful actions are still taking place, negatively impacting both children and adolescents as well as adults in the U.S., according to a perspective in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine.

Currently, only 18 states have laws banning conversion therapy in the U.S. for people younger than 18 years old. No states have bans on conversion therapies done to adults. “As a result of the lack of regulation on these “therapies” many adults and children continue to be defrauded, harmed, and traumatized in the U.S. every day,” explains lead author Carl Streed, Jr., MD, MPH, FACP, a primary care physician at Boston Medical Center (BMC) and assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).

According to the authors, the harm these therapies cause is well-documented, including higher rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. “In addition to the health problems associated with conversion therapies, these practices also carry serious economic burdens for LGBTQ people and the country at large, including low educational achievement, lower income, and lower work performance,” said Streed, who also treats patients at the Center for Transgender Medicine & Surgery at BMC.

The perspective encourages physicians to be vigilant about this issue given that many victims of conversion therapy are often silent about it. The authors highlight the importance of teaching physicians about common traits and risk factors to help them better identify patients who underwent or may be undergoing conversion therapy. They also emphasize, for medical professionals, the psychiatric illnesses conversion therapies cause, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that require medical attention.

Of equal importance, they also call to action medical educators to reform the curricula of medical schools and training programs to better prepare future physicians to care for LGBTQ people, including identifying and treating past trauma. There is ample evidence that current physicians are ill-equipped to help victims of conversion therapy and LGBTQ people at large. This is largely because education on LGBTQ health is not a mandated part of medical schools’ curricula, and thus most doctors never learn to care for these patients general health needs properly-much less the trauma caused by conversion therapy.

“Put simply, these practices need to end,” said Streed. “We need to work across sectors to focus on ensuring that all individuals of all ages receive appropriate, comprehensive care by trained medical professionals in a supportive environment.”

Streed, who served as the former chair of the Massachusetts Medical Society Advisory Committee on LGBTQ Matters and the former chair of the American Medical Association Advisory Committee on LGBTQ Issues, advocates to end conversion therapy.

About Boston University School of Medicine
Originally established in 1848 as the New England Female Medical College, and incorporated into Boston University in 1873, Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) today is a leading academic medical center with an enrollment of more than 700 medical students and 950 students pursuing degrees in graduate medical sciences. BUSM faculty contribute to more than 950 active grants and contracts, with total anticipated awards valued at more than $693 million in amyloidosis, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, infectious diseases, pulmonary disease and dermatology, among other areas. The School’s teaching affiliates include Boston Medical Center, its primary teaching hospital, the Boston VA Healthcare System, Kaiser Permanente in northern California, as well as Boston HealthNet, a network of 15 community health centers. For more information, please visit http://www.bumc.bu.edu/busm/

About Boston Medical Center
Boston Medical Center is a private, not-for-profit, 514-bed, academic medical center that is the primary teaching affiliate of Boston University School of Medicine. It is the largest and busiest provider of trauma and emergency services in New England. Committed to providing high-quality health care to all, the hospital offers a full spectrum of pediatric and adult care services including primary and family medicine and advanced specialty care with an emphasis on community-based care. Boston Medical Center offers specialized care for complex health problems and is a leading research institution, receiving more than $117 million in sponsored research funding in fiscal year 2016. It is the 13th largest recipient of funding in the U.S. from the National Institutes of Health among independent hospitals. In 1997, BMC founded Boston Medical Center Health Plan, Inc., now one of the top ranked Medicaid MCOs in the country, as a non-profit managed care organization. It does business in Massachusetts as BMC HealthNet Plan and as Well Sense Health Plan in New Hampshire, serving 290,000 people, collectively. Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine are partners in the Boston HealthNet – 14 community health centers focused on providing exceptional health care to residents of Boston. For more information, please visit http://www.bmc.org.