New center to tackle health disparities affecting LGBTQ community

Alex Spinelli of STAT and Brittany Charlton
Alex Spinelli of STAT and Brittany Charlton at LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence launch

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health partner to advance health equity for LGBTQ communities

June 5, 2024—Discrimination against LGBTQ people throughout the U.S. and around the world contributes to poorer health outcomes. A new Harvard center wants to shift that paradigm.

The LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence, based at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and in partnership with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, aims to advance health equity for LGBTQ people. Studies have shown that LGBTQ people suffer worse health than their peers, with higher prevalences of both mental health ailments, such as depression, and physical illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular diseases.

In 2016, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recognized these significant and well-documented inequities by designating LGBTQ individuals as a health disparities population, opening the door for more research into the field. The result has been a marked increase in LGBTQ research—but Brittany Charlton, founding director of the LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence, says that there is still much more work to be done.

“Just 1% of NIH-funded research is dedicated to LGBTQ health,” said Charlton, Harvard Medical School associate professor of population medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School. “That is so out of step with the fact that one in 10 people in the U.S. are LGBTQ, and that that number is twice as high among young people.”

The LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence, which launched June 4 during Harvard Chan’s Pride Month celebration, aims to tackle this shortfall by committing to deepening research in the field. It intends to award pilot grants for LGBTQ health research, as well as support to existing studies examining the subject. Charlton says that specific attention must be paid to data collection. Since information about sexual orientation and gender identity are not routinely gathered as part of care for health care visits, quantifying health disparities faced by the LGBTQ population can be challenging for researchers; improved data collection will open up more opportunities for research.

Dean Andrea Baccarelli
Dean Andrea Baccarelli

“Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is wholly committed to the mission of health, dignity, and justice for all people, and the LGBTQ Health Center of Excellence will help us move closer to that goal,” said Andrea Baccarelli, dean of the faculty at Harvard Chan School. “Addressing the longstanding inequities in LGBTQ health is critical, and we are proud to be part of this important work.”

Training the next generation

The center also intends to focus a significant portion of its work on training the next generation of researchers. Key components of its strategy include scholarships to support students focusing their research in the field, a new course taught by Charlton on LGBTQ health research methodology, and fellowships for students throughout Harvard University who are engaged in LGBTQ health projects.

The commitment to training the next generation is critical to Michael Dillon, MPH ’23, who has been a key donor and supporter. “The center is really going to be an opportunity for us to develop leaders,” said Dillon. “Whether it’s in the healthcare profession, or it’s in the movement, or it’s someone that would run for office, I think there’s just such opportunity.”

Arriving at the right moment

The longstanding disparities facing LGBTQ individuals are being heightened by a recent political and social push to amplify stigmas against the community, with gender-affirming care and LGBTQ researchers coming under attack. Charlton says that the center’s launch comes at a critical moment.

“Since January, we have seen more than 500 discriminatory anti-LGBTQ bills introduced into state legislatures,” Charlton said. “That number is four times as many as there were in all of 2020 and we’re not even halfway through the year.”

In response to this uptick, the center also intends to make disseminating research a key pillar of its work. It plans to host public events on LGBTQ health and partner with the Center for Health Communication to offer a fellowship to train more leaders to write op-eds and policy briefs that effectively communicate on LGBTQ health. They also plan to lean on the LGBTQ community’s strengths.

“There is so much resiliency and joy in our community,” said Charlton. “Drawing on our community strengths within the center’s work will help us thrive.”

Jeff Sobotko

Photos: Kent Dayton