Sarah Jones, PA-C, is a physician assistant on the overnight hospitalist team at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where she has worked for about 8 years. She studied chemistry and biology as an undergraduate at the University of Indianapolis, and then attended PA school at Butler University in Indianapolis. She came out as lesbian/queer just before PA school. She joined the Society of Hospital Medicine in 2020 and serves on SHM’s Diversity and Inclusion Special Interest Group.
How important is it to you to openly identify as a physician assistant who is a member of the LGBTQ community?
I think it’s important to show other people that I am part of the LGBTQ community and that I’ve been able to overcome obstacles and pursue this career and be successful. I can help other people and be in that role [of mentor], and show people that they can do it, too.
What challenges have you faced because of your sexual orientation in the different stages of your career, from training to practicing as a physician assistant?
When my training started, I was much closer to the time when I came out, so my confidence level was a little bit low. I was much more fearful at that point about how people would view me – if I would be thought of as inferior, or not taken as seriously, or that I wasn’t intelligent. I think over the years I’ve grown into this role and it’s helped me become more confident, because I know who I am now. And it’s not something that definitely defines me but I’m confident that I know medicine, and I know how to treat patients and that confidence has gotten much better.
So far at work, everyone’s been great, all my coworkers have been great. I’ve never once felt that my sexuality was holding anyone back from getting to know me better.
Have you heard about the experiences of other LGBTQ clinicians who may not have been as fortunate as you, especially transgender people?
There is just a lot of ignorance around LGBTQ persons and especially transgender persons, because people don’t understand it, they don’t get it. So their first inclination is to not approve of it, or be scared of it, or just automatically think that it’s wrong.
If someone’s sexuality comes across much more “obviously” than that of other people, for example, if there’s a gay man who’s a little more flamboyant, [it could be an issue for some patients]. I know there are some gay male nurses who have had patients who don’t want them serving as their nurse, because they’re “obviously” gay. Or a queer woman clinician who has more of an edgier haircut or looks a little bit more masculine; I know that there have been some patients who have said certain things to them that have been discriminating.
Have you been especially conscious of how you ‘wear’ your sexual orientation? Have you ever had to change how you’ve presented yourself, lest you have some unpleasant reaction?
I think initially, yes. I would say I’m a little more on the androgynous side with my style. When I was coming out I was trying to figure out where I was and who I was and how I wanted to be, and for the longest time I was dressing more femininely and I wasn’t as comfortable. Since then, I’ve had times where I’ve had short hair or a little bit more of a masculine haircut and wear more masculine clothes and things like that, and I feel much more comfortable doing that.
It’s kind of hard to play the part of a more masculine LGBTQ person at work when you just wear scrubs. I probably don’t portray it as much – I don’t make it as obvious as some other people, but I’ve definitely never shied away from having a conversation with anyone about it.
Health care is an intimate profession because of your close interaction with patients and others. Did being a member of the LGBTQ community factor into your decision to enter the health care field, either for or against?
There were times when I didn’t feel well or my mental health was not great because I didn’t know where I was, or hadn’t accepted myself, and I really needed someone who could help me talk through things and try to figure out what my life path was going to be. When I figured those things out with the help of other people, it was life-changing. I respected those people, and that’s what I wanted to do and how I wanted to help. I think that was part of why I got into medicine.
What progress have you seen with regard to LGBTQ health care professionals and patients over the past 5 to 10 years, including subtle changes in culture, attitude, or workplace policies?
Just being interviewed for a profile like this is a step in the right direction. Never once did I think that I would be highlighted for being an LGBTQ person, especially in the workplace.
I think that there are more companies, particularly in health care, and more hospitals that are coming out in support of their LGBTQ employees, especially during Pride month. IU Health walks every year in the Pride parade, which last year was about 3 hours long. Five years previously it was only 30 minutes long. So there are more employers getting involved and recognizing their employees as well. Companies and health care facilities are trying to be more cognizant of their LGBTQ employees and patients and trying to make them more comfortable.
What main steps toward more progress would you like to see?
There needs to be greater understanding that people who undergo discrimination actually have more negative health outcomes like heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. There needs to be better medical coverage in the LGBTQ community, especially for transgender persons and LGBTQ people who are trying to start families. We need better mental health access, more affordable mental health access, particularly for LGBTQ youth, and we definitely need to continue to raise awareness with hopes that we can eradicate the violence against, and killing of, black transgender persons.
How do you see the Society of Hospital Medicine’s role in this regard?
SHM has a big platform and can certainly reach a lot of people, especially hospitalists who see LGBTQ patients every day. With SHM’s help and the continued training of hospitalists who are members of the society, we can reach out to other clinicians, and to their organizations, and help teach them. SHM really has a good platform to be able to do that, and do it well.
Can you recall a specific interaction with an LGBTQ patient that left you with a potent feeling that “this is what it’s all about”?
I do remember a transgender patient who was homeless. They didn’t have insurance, they couldn’t afford their hormone treatment, and I remember they were struggling with some mental health issues and were “acting out” overnight. Some of the nurses were not using the correct pronouns. I’m more cognizant of their struggles because I’m a member of the LGBTQ community and I was able to recognize this.
I sat down and I talked with the patient for quite a while, we were able to form a bond, and I was able to get a little bit more information from them, and by the end of the night, they felt much better. And just being able to be their voice, when they weren’t able to express exactly how they were feeling, was something that made me thankful that I went into medicine, to help other LGBTQ patients.
I’ve had many LGBTQ patients in the hospital whom I’ve been able to form a bit of a bond with, just knowing that the patient could be me.