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Dr. Erika Sullivan Shares Vision of Medical Education & LGBTQIA+ Health at TEDxSaltLakeCity


TEDx is a well-known presentation venue which offers thinkers from a wide range of disciplines the opportunity to share their expertise with an engaged audience. The presentations given at TEDx are known for the passion of their presenters as they grapple with real-world problems, share engaging stories, and reflect on the experience of humanity. To be selected as a TEDx presenter is to be highlighted as a thought leader with a significant message for the community. In September 2023, Family Medicine faculty member and physician Erika Sullivan, MD will join the esteemed ranks of TEDx presenters when she gives her presentation “The importance of improving the capacity of the primary care workforce to care for LGBTQIA+ patients” at TEDxSaltLakeCity.

The motivation for Dr. Sullivan’s talk came from her observation that the LGBTQIA+ community visiting University of Utah clinics often self-select certain clinicians for their care, feeling more comfortable working with those physicians and APCs who explicitly follow the science and practice LGBTQIA+ care. Although that small cadre of clinicians are dedicated to providing the community with care, it struck Dr. Sullivan as backwards that LGBTQIA+ care was being treated as a de facto specialization by clinicians and patients. Thus began a personal and professional campaign to promote LGBTQIA+ care as an integral part of general practice and a standard part of medical training curricula.

“We frequently hear from patients that their clinicians don’t know about PrEP [a HIV prevention medication], or have no understanding of transgender care, or are unfamiliar with hormone treatment,” says Dr. Sullivan. “By and large, this is a matter of education. We try to educate people where they are and prepare our future healthcare workforce to meet the needs of this community.”

Erika Anne Sullivan

For education to be accepted, however, clinicians and their leaders need to be aware of what they don’t know. Dr. Sullivan sees her upcoming TEDxSaltLakeCity presentation as a way to identify knowledge gaps in LGBTQIA+ care and address them. “My hope is that someone somewhere who is involved with the practice of medicine sees the presentation and says, ‘You know, this is something I can do, it isn’t hard and there are resources available to help me do it.’ Medical programs must recognize that they can’t sit on the sidelines. The healthcare system of the future needs to meet the needs of this community. It doesn’t happen just by osmosis—we have to have curricula around it.”

Despite the challenges of generalizing LGBTQIA+ care at the clinical level, Dr. Sullivan notes that there are success stories close to home, praising the support for LGBTQIA+ care education programs in the Family Medicine Division. Her mentor and Family Medicine Division Chief Bernadette Kiraly, MD initiated many of the educational programs specific to LGBTQIA+ care in the Residency program, and the two physicians are co-Medical Directors of the Transgender Health Program. The integration of this and similar health outreaches with the general training of residents has been a longstanding priority for the program, and Dr. Sullivan praises Dr. Kiraly’s “unflinching” support for LGBTQIA+ care through shifting political and social winds. For many years, Dr. Kiraly was the sole provider of transgender healthcare in the U’s health system, and Dr. Sullivan sees the power of education and determination in the transition from a single clinician’s efforts to a well-staffed, award-winning program.

“Bernadette Kiraly is why I do this work,” she says simply. “She has really shown how it takes one person to start something, but then others join and there’s this amazing domino effect. But it’s all because she said yes. And, honestly, that is what this talk is about: the story of how one person’s efforts can translate into many different people creating change.”

Dr. Sullivan will have the chance to make her case for changing medical education to a packed house in September, but her work in this area has already impacted the shape of education in the Family Medicine Residency program and gathered interest from similar programs across the country. And like her mentor, she plans to keep championing LGBTQIA+ care as basic medicine no matter the challenges.

“This is my life’s work,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like politics; it feels like medicine, like primary care. I think that everyone deserves the opportunity to feel heard and seen and to get the care that they need. It doesn’t feel like a big ask, but I feel it still needs to be asked. And I feel if we ask, people will answer, and they’ll say, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”

Dr. Sullivan will present at TEDxSaltLakeCity on September 25, 2023 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Tickets are available here. Presentations given in the 2023 TEDxSaltLakeCity event will be posted in video format in the TEDxSaltLakeCity Archives.