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The Health Hazards of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

On December 1, TheNew England Journal of Medicine published an article I wrote entitled “Health Hazards of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” The article describes how the military’s policy on homosexuality imperils the health of service members, the military, and the country, and it advocates for repeal of the policy on those grounds.

I have to say that, until last year, I never anticipated publishing an article about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I have, and still do, support its repeal. But I’m a physician and public-health practitioner, not a policy wonk, lawyer, or expert on military affairs. And I’ve never served in the military myself.

What changed? Well, in 2009 I moved to San Diego, California, to take a job as medical director of the municipal STD clinics in San Diego and as director of public health efforts to prevent and control STDs in the community. San Diego has proved different from places I’ve lived in the past. It’s not just sunnier. It’s a whole lot more military. In fact, about 175,000 active-duty service members and their dependents live in San Diego. And considering that an estimated 2.2 percent of military personnel are lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB), it should not be a surprise that a fair number of them are LGB.

I know that first-hand, because I not uncommonly care for active-duty service members, including LGB service members, in the municipal clinics. And, as I do for every patient I see, I take a sexual history. I ask my patients who they have sex with, what types of sex they’re having with their partners, whether they’re using protection. In doing so, I’m simply doing what I’ve been trained to so since my very first day of medical school: find out what the problem is, and fix it. And, when it comes to sexual health, those questions are critical to me, in determining which screening tests to order, which diagnoses to consider, and which STD and HIV prevention messages I should provide. For example, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding STD screening are different for men who have sex with men who than they are for men who have sex only with women.

What happens when I ask my patients those intimate questions? Well, for the most part, whether my patients are men or women, gay or straight, military or civilian, they tell. They know that I need that information to help them. And they want to be helped. They want to be – or stay – healthy, after all. That’s why they came to see me in the first place.

The problem with “don’t ask, don’t tell” is that it’s a giant roadblock in the middle of the typical “ask” and “tell” encounter that’s absolutely essential to the effective practice of medicine. It’s like trying to take care of a patient with chest pain without being able to ask him whether he smokes, or has a history of heart disease, or has ever had a heart attack in the past. It’s not good medicine.

But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in many military healthcare settings, according to scores of military clinicians and service members with whom I’ve talked. Military clinicians don’t ask, and service members don’t tell. No matter that the Department of Defense last year exempted use of disclosures of same-sex sexual behavior from use under “don’t ask, don’t tell” procedures. Many military clinicians and service members I’ve talked to aren’t aware of that exemption. Even after I tell them about it, military clinicians and service members say they still won’t ask and won’t tell. As one military physician wrote me after reading my article: “Training in military medicine will also have to change with the times because I/we have never been previously trained in taking appropriate sexual histories.”

The upshot is that infections among service members go undiagnosed and untreated – unless they come see me, or another civilian provider proficient in sexual health. There are certainly many more service members who don’t know about, or don’t have access to, municipal clinics. In those cases, we all lose. If infections go undiagnosed and untreated, our public health efforts to break the chain of transmission of STDs and HIV are undermined. That goes for our efforts in both the military and the civilian populations, which in San Diego, and many other areas across the country, have a huge amount of social – and sexual -- overlap.

STDs, of course, compromise military readiness, whether they’re among LGB service members or not. And they also predispose to HIV acquisition, which itself is unfortunate for a service member and costly, in terms of readiness and healthcare expenses, for the military.

The best way to make sure our service members stay healthy is to remove the “don’t’ ask, don’t tell” roadblock. Repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” will have health benefits for service members, the military, and the country. Don’t we owe it to our men and women in uniform, who are called on to sacrifice so much for us every day, to make sure we’re doing our part to protect their health?

The Department of Defense this week released survey results indicating that 70 percent of service members say that repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would have positive or mixed impact, or no impact at all, on their units. And there’s hope that the U.S. Senate will vote on repeal of the policy before the lame duck session ends this month.

But in the meantime, active-duty service members continue to come to the municipal clinics. They include people like the sailor I describe in The New England Journal of Medicine, a gay man I diagnosed with an STD. He would never, he told me, go to a military clinic with a problem like that, so long as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the law of the land. Doing so would pose too great a risk to his career. The sailor also told me he would return to see me for retesting for gonorrhea in three months, as I recommended, following CDC guidelines. He was, after all, about to be deployed on a combat mission in Afghanistan.

This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice


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