Utah PA Program Looks at Gender and Sexuality Topics

The Utah Physician Assistant Program at the University of Utah School of Medicine might be one of the oldest PA programs in the country, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t keeping up with the times.

This month, the equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) team at PAEA had the pleasure to speak with Jo Rolls, MEHP, MPAS, PA-C, MEHP and Kilo Zamora, MSW, about the work they are doing to engage their learners with the topics of gender and sexuality, and how best to care for gender-diverse patients.

Seeing a gap between what students were learning in the classroom and the realities of working with queer communities in practice, Rolls and Zamora worked to create a three-hour workshop dedicated to increasing student’s awareness of how their gender is socially constructed and how it can impact their PA practice.

Other outcomes of this workshop include reimagining current, better, and best practices relevant to our specific contexts that promote sexual/gender minority health and sex/gender specific health and increasing students PA leadership skills to identify gaps in healthcare systems to develop ways to change them. 

This isn’t the only time that PA students will learn about these topics. While this specific workshop takes place in their third semester, gender affirming medical care is woven throughout the curriculum.

The purpose behind the workshop is to give learners the opportunity to deep dive into an exploration of their own identities through critical reflection and experiential activities. By doing so, students develop empathy and understand how gender is a social construct and every person experiences the world through their own gender.  

Rolls begins the workshop with an overview of gender theory and definitions of terms. She emphasizes a strength-based approach to language as opposed to words that focus on deficits, which can be the norm. An example of this is using terms such as gender euphoria and gender affirmation opposed to gender dysphoria.

Then, Zamora leads experiential exercises that asks the learners to look inward and inspect how they perform their gender and how that expression might shift in a personal setting versus in a work setting.

Together they ask questions like, “How does the culture you grew up in inform your gender identity?” and “Where did gender stereotypes come from and how do they impact the health sciences?”

Rolls circles back with students to examine the healthcare disparities in gender diverse communities and what is going on at the macro level. The workshop concludes with students identifying specific action steps that enhance practices, organizations, communities, and systems on behalf of people who are sexual and gender minorities. 

What Rolls and Zamora have created is in part made possible by the commitment to inclusive healthcare demonstrated by the University of Utah. In fact, last year the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC) awarded all five University of Utah Health facilities with the LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader designation.

Their clinical practice works heavily with the local queer community and as part of the workshop one of Rolls’ patients speaks with students about their experience.  

For PA programs that might not have the same history of working with queer communities, Zamora and Rolls insist that this work is still possible. If there is no one on staff who is practicing gender affirming medical care or has expertise in this topic, partnerships will be your best friend.

One could bring in a clinician from outside the program who works in these spheres to supplement and bolster the conversation, or even a colleague from inside your college/university who works in a gender and sexuality department. Even EDI champions who might not have innate knowledge about these topics should take it upon themselves to learn and not be afraid to move forward.