Dr. Avantika “Avi” Varma’s path to being an LGBTQ+ healthcare provider started in an orphanage. The family medicine physician and HIV specialist would spend summers visiting her family in New Delhi, India, where her maternal uncle owned and operated a hospital.
During one visit, she volunteered at an orphanage for abandoned children who were living with HIV. “Seeing those children smiling and happy despite their situation really drove me into studying HIV medicine,” she explains. “I learned that the LGBTQIA+ community, especially gay and bisexual men, are disproportionately impacted by HIV. So, from there, my focus on LGBTQIA+ healthcare was born.”
Inspired by her uncle’s example and her experiences at the orphanage in India, today Dr. Varma is the founder and CEO of Equal Health, a new digital health company that provides comprehensive healthcare services to the LGBTQIA+ community.
At a time when legislative attacks against queer-affirming health care are at an all-time high, LGBTQ-allied companies like Equal Health are needed. In 2023 alone, there have been 129 bills introduced in state legislatures across the United States that target LGBTQ healthcare, and specifically gender-affirming care for transgender youth and adults.
But, as Dr. Varma points out, anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination often exists within the healthcare industry itself.
“LGBTQIA+ individuals often face hate or discrimination within the healthcare system, and on average healthcare providers receive [only] five hours of training in their four years of medical school in LGBTQIA+ health,” she says. “That really is not enough training to be able to provide and really understand the needs of this special community.”
As a solution to this problem, Equal Health offers a range of services from LGBTQ+ health care specialists including mental health care, sexual health care, gender-affirming hormone therapy, HIV prevention and treatment, and more.
Equal Health currently provides both membership and non-membership-based telehealth care for adults (ages 18+) in Georgia and Florida, but will be expanding to other states in the next few weeks, including Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota. For a limited time, the company is offering three free months of HRT services and HIV prevention memberships.
Below, we speak to Dr. Varma about the state of LGBTQ+ healthcare, how Equal Health works, her entrepreneurial journey as a woman of color, and her advice for other LGBTQ+ allies.
Queerency: How would you describe the current state of LGBTQ+ healthcare?
Dr. Varma: The LGBTQIA+ population is growing, and currently represents approximately 7.2% of the total US population. So that's over 24 million people who need healthcare services. At the same time, there are around 400 anti-LGBTQ bills that have been proposed in the US according to the ACLU, many of which are focused on targeting access to LGBTQIA+ healthcare services like gender-affirming care.
This is devastating. As a physician, I understand that gender-affirming care is life-saving, so I will always strongly advocate for the right to access gender-affirming and the fundamental right to healthcare for the transgender, non-conforming, intersex, and LGBTQIA+ community as a whole.
But the good news is that there are many allies within the healthcare system and companies like Equal Health can help to meet the healthcare challenges faced by this community.
Queerency: How does Equal Health work? Let’s say I’m someone who wants to receive gender-affirming care through your services. How would I access that through your platform?
Dr. Varma: We’ve made it easy to access care using our website. If you go to our company website, we have an “Our Services” page and everything is laid out and clear in terms of the services that we offer and each component to each membership package. So, for gender-affirming care, you can see exactly what is included in your plan, how much it costs on a monthly basis versus an annual package, and what's really encompassed in a membership. You're able to select your plan, make your payment, and schedule your appointment right away.
One of the biggest benefits with Equal Health is that there are truly no wait lines. You don't need a referral to receive specialized care, which oftentimes with gender-affirming care can take months.
Queerency: Do you need insurance to be able to use Equal Health services?
Dr. Varma: That’s a great question. Equal Health does not require insurance at all. We’re a platform that patients are able to access without concern about whether or not their health insurance plan will cover gender-affirming care or any of the other services we offer. One of the unfortunate things that is coming out of some of these anti-lgbtq bills is whether or not health insurance plans will cover gender-affirming care moving forward. So our goal and mission at Equal Health is to make sure we maintain access to our to the LGBTQIA+ community to ensure that they can continue to receive the care that they need and deserve.
Queerency: It's one thing to be a doctor, but it's another thing to be a doctor and an entrepreneur who runs your own medical startup. How has your entrepreneurship journey been so far?
Dr. Varma: I always knew that I really wanted to be my own boss at some point, and it’s really been one of the biggest joys for me to take this journey. It really has been a goal of mine. But I'll be honest, it is a difficult industry to break into, especially as a woman and a person of color. But I’m reminded of the words of one of my role models, Michelle Obama, who said that you should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversities is actually one of your biggest advantages.
I really do believe that. I think the challenges we face in life and the hard work we put into our journey really drive our successes.
Queerency: What advice would you give to other allies who want to support equal access to health care for the LGBTQ+ community?
Dr. Varma: We as allies must continue to support the queer community by making sure that we're supporting those who are seeking care. I think it's really important that we amplify the voices of those seeking care and ensure that their voices are heard. That's why we're here. I think it's our duty to step up and make sure that we continue to fight this fight.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).