PhD student champions LGBTTQ* health-care standards
Student researcher awarded CBC’s Proud to Shine recognition

Morgan Stirling, a PhD student in the department of community health sciences, has been awarded CBC’s Proud to Shine 2021 recognition for outstanding community involvement of an LGBTTQ* person. As a queer person, they have devoted their research and volunteer work to bringing equity to gender- and sex-diverse persons’ interactions with the health-care system.

Alyson Mahar, assistant professor in the department of community health sciences, nominated Stirling for the Proud to Shine recognition.

Stirling has also been recognized by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research by receiving the Canada Graduate Scholarships — Doctoral, one of the top federal scholarships in Canada.

While they were wrapping up their master’s degree, Stirling began to work with CancerCare Manitoba’s underserved populations program. The program aims to help people who are unable to get proper cancer screening and support due to a wide range of barriers.

“My role with the underserved populations program is really focused on identifying the barriers that […] folks face to accessing cancer care in the province,” Stirling said.

Stirling had the opportunity to participate as a research assistant during their master’s degree in a project exploring the experiences of trans folks alongside lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer women’s experiences with cancer.

Stirling’s background of conflict resolution, master’s research and experience with CancerCare Manitoba led them to pursue doctoral studies. They have designed their PhD thesis to assess and develop principles to guide the health-care system’s use of gender data in cancer research.

“My project is really about helping researchers develop the appropriate lens that they need when they are doing their research,” Stirling said.

“So, what are the things that they need to be thinking about in terms of gender diversity when they are developing their studies? How are they thinking about gender up front in the beginning of the design? How are they thinking about gender through the data collection, the analysis, the results and the dissemination?”

Currently, the health-care system does not adequately address LGBTTQ* folks’ health-care needs. Stirling is concerned by the fact that if someone changes their sex designation on their Manitoba health card, it can affect the treatment that they are given.

“A lot of the cancer screening registries, you know, they send out information based on the sex that’s on somebody’s Manitoba health card,” Stirling said.

Sex designation impacts the automated notices that people are sent regarding cancer screenings. For example, women are sent notices regarding screening for cervical cancer. Folks that identify with an “X” intersex designation may not receive such a notice and may not know to seek cervical cancer screening, especially if they do not have a primary care provider.

“So, if somebody changes their sex designation, that can impact what they will be offered in terms of their cancer screenings,” Stirling said.

“[If] somebody has an X, we’re not sure how we’re going to be able to accommodate that in terms of people being able to be offered the screening that they need.”

The impact of sex on all types of diagnosis and health-care treatment is also a very real issue for LGBTTQ* communities, but the scope of Stirling’s expertise is limited to cancer care.

“I can only speak to cancer. I imagine it’s similar to other types of programs that use these kinds of registries to guide delivery of care.”

While many of the barriers for LGBTTQ* folks exist at the systemic level, personal bias is also a factor when it comes to receiving care. According to Stirling, education is a powerful tool in addressing personal bias.

“My experience has been that the clinicians really do want to provide the best care possible,” Stirling said.

“But they get in their own way around their lack of knowledge and understanding.”