June 23, 2022
Virtua Health is set to open a new primary care facility next week that serves as a safe space for LGBTQ+ people and their allies in Marlton, Burlington County.
Virtua Pride will begin seeing patients Monday at 534 Lippincott Drive. In addition to traditional services that can be found at any primary care office, the practice will also provide gender-affirming care and other specialized screenings and services centered around LGBTQ+ people.
The office is an off-shoot of Virtua Health's services, provided mainly by two doctors working within the company's framework. Dr. Shanin Gross and Dr. Richard Levine are leading the practice, and both requested to join the moment the opportunity for a LGBTQ-centered facility became available.
Gross, who has worked as a family physician at Virtua Health since 2016, said that they and their other colleagues first began discussing inequities facing the LGBTQ+ community during the COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted to find where Virtua Health could fill gaps and bridge disparities in health care.
The physicians discovered that the company lacked a safe space for queer patients seeking both typical primary services and gender-affirming care in an environment that is accepting.
"Whenever someone has a place where they feel they are not only welcomed and accepted but even celebrated, and that the provider understands their own unique needs and their own unique way of relating to their own health, it helps them feel seen, heard, appreciated, and have a reason to be engaged in their care," said Gross. "We know that when we foster that sense of trust and meet people where they are, that they end up with better outcomes. They are more engaged and more likely to be healthier in the long-run."
Besides typical primary care services like work and school screenings, diagnostic testing, minor procedures, family care, and specialist referrals, Virtua Pride will offer a wide selection of LGBTQ-focused care, including gender-affirming hormone therapy, sexual health, family planning, HIV testing, prevention and management, and mental health care.
The facility plans to partner with other providers in South Jersey that accept and celebrate LGBTQ+ people, as well as provide referrals to social workers and health managers.
"What we want to do is create a place where people know they are the norm and not the exception," said Gross. "We are looking to grow with the community, and we expect to be tweaking things and talking with patients about their experiences. We're looking to create a space that the LGBTQ community in South Jersey really needs and deserves."
Gross said Virtua Pride's efforts at focusing on the needs of queer people begins before a patient ever steps foot in the office.
From the first phone call to make an appointment, to walking in the front door and checking out to receive lab work — each step of the experience seeks to ensure that every patient's name and pronouns are respected and that they feel celebrated in their identity.
Brandon Balcom will be one of the practice's first patients. He first heard about Virtua Pride from a friend who suggested it when Balcom returned to New Jersey with his husband, Dane Cox, after spending time living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For both of them, receiving care from providers that have experience working with members of the LGBTQ+ community is particularly important.
"In the seven years I lived in Minnesota, I never found a primary care practice that offered this type of specialized care," Balcom said. "There's a level of comfort that comes with an organization that thinks holistically about all aspects of health. It informs how the doctor interacts with you, the questions they ask, and the considerations they anticipate."
Balcom and Cox believe that there is a clear difference in the quality of care a patient receives when doctors looks at them holistically, assessing physical, mental and emotional health.
For many members of the queer community, receiving care from a provider who makes their patients feel safe allows them to be more forthcoming about their care and ultimately be healthier in the long run.
"A lot of queer people grow up with some level of trauma from shame or from not being accepted in their community," Balcom said. "Having a recognition that this is a place focusing on queer people shows an extra level of care."
LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of mental health issues and suicide risk, largely due to their marginalization in many facets of American society.
The results of those adverse experiences and mistreatments can have harrowing consequences — a study from the National Institutes of Health found that one in six LGBTQ+ adults avoid seeking out health care due to anticipated discrimination from providers.
Gender-affirming hormone therapy has been found to reduce the risk of suicide in transgender youth. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health recently updated its guidelines, lowering the recommended age for hormone therapy to 14 years old. Still, a lack of access and acceptance has contributed to an increase in suicide risk among transgender and gender non-conforming people.
The Marlton office will be open Monday through Friday, with varying hours. Appointments can be scheduled on the office's website or by telephone at (856) 716-5769.