If you ask Christopher Palazzo, MD, why he chose West Michigan as the place to practice medicine, he can sum it up in a sentence.

A commitment to affirming and inclusive care.

John Duhn, DO, and Dr. Palazzo, family medicine physicians at Spectrum Health Medical Group Family Medicine – Allendale, say their practice is popular among the LGBTQ+ community.

And not by accident.

Their team members pride themselves on providing affirming and inclusive care for all.

Dr. Duhn, a provider with Spectrum Health for almost eight years, recently welcomed Dr. Palazzo to his team. Dr. Palazzo, in his first year with the practice, said that he followed Dr. Duhn in hopes of working with the LGBTQ+ population.

“I saw a huge need for more providers who could provide affirming and competent care to this community,” Dr. Palazzo said. “The need for more physicians as one or two doctors can’t take care of all these patients.”

Dr. Palazzo said it’s a unique environment at Allendale, and everyone is up to speed on what is important and relevant to this population.

“This is unique care for many of our patients,” he said. “And it’s very important care, too.”

Meeting needs

As you walk into their office, you will see rainbow stickers and pride flags at each employee’s workstation. Each team member wears a rainbow pin on their name badge, to show they are safe and affirming allies.

Small gestures like this can ease a patient’s mind right away, Dr. Palazzo said.

As a gay man, he had similar concerns when visiting the doctor when he was younger, and worried about being judged or even being outed before he was out to family and friends.

“I have heard from LGBTQ+ patients who had such anxiety about meeting a new doctor, they would wait in the car full of fear and anxiety for a half an hour before stepping foot inside,” he said. “Seeing something as simple as a rainbow symbol can make such a difference and ease tension and anxiety right away.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity are often difficult discussions to bring up with a new care provider.

Dr. Palazzo and his team break the ice on those items right off the bat. All new patient paperwork asks for pronouns, as well as the chosen name and gender the patient identifies with.

Dr. Palazzo said his patients have told him they’ve felt comfortable and safe at his office right away.

“This community has faced so many challenges over the years such as discrimination, hate and alienation, both in the community and in health care,” he said. “Providing a safe space is extremely important.”

There are real social determinants of health, things that lead to less access to health care, when it comes to this population, he said.

‘We’re trying to break down barriers to care,” Dr. Palazzo said. “We’re offering video visits, for example, to make it easier for patients to get the care they need.”

Asking questions

Spectrum Health recently rolled out a training series developed by the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center for physicians and care teams to designate medical offices as safe and affirming.

Dr. Duhn and Dr. Palazzo were proud that their entire team completed the training in the first week it was available.

These types of small steps can make a big impact on the way a patient receives care. Something as simple as having the pronoun conversation right away, Dr. Palazzo said, makes all the difference.

“You can’t just assume that a patient goes by the name on the chart,” he said. “They may not have gone by that name for years.”

A lot of this work requires learning as you go—being open and apologizing if you make a mistake, Dr. Palazzo said. As many of his patients are new, he spends time right up front getting to know who they are, who they live with and what they do.

“Asking questions like this can really break the ice and open up important topics for discussion,” he said.

The Spectrum Health application for MyChart now also includes options for gender identity, pronouns, and sexual orientation—all extremely important pieces of information for a patient’s health, and helpful for a doctor to provide more personalized care. The system also has a way to properly document procedures and changes in a patient’s health status.

The Allendale family medicine location isn’t the only physician’s office that focuses on affirming care for the LGBTQ+ community.

Spectrum Health recently published a list of safe and affirming providers available to the LGBTQ+ community, with offices across West Michigan.

“We have a continual flow of new patients and want to provide the best access to care as we can,” Dr. Palazzo said. “There are exciting things on the horizon for sure. Knowing before you even walk in the door that you matter makes all the difference in the world.”