Dr. Maria Barnett is making a difference for the LGBTQ+ community

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Maria Barnett, doctor of osteopathic medicine, D.O., Central Ohio Primary Care (Photo by Rob Hardin)

When Dr. Maria Barnett, Columbus CEO's 2022 Healthcare Achievement Awards Practitioner of the Year, was completing her residency at the Cleveland Clinic from 2009 to 2012, she got a first-hand look at what it was like to devote health care resources to the LGBTQ+ community. It was there she met Dr. Henry Ng, whose clinical and academic work focuses on delivering culturally and clinically competent care to medically vulnerable populations. In 2007, he co-founded the PRIDE Clinic, Ohio’s first medical home for LGBTQ+ patients. 

When her residency was complete, Barnett joined Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center as a family medicine physician. Known for her desire to focus on underserved communities, she was asked by the chief diversity officer at OSU to assist with primary care for transgender individuals. She took to the practice, which eventually led her to become a co-founder of the Transgender Primary Care Clinic in 2015 along with Dr. Andrew Keaster.

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“We started seeing patients half a day each month,” Barnett says, “and quickly saw that the need in the community was so much more than that.”

At the time, the U.S. Transgender Survey painted a bleak picture about the harmful effects being transgender had on a person’s physical and mental health. Respondents encountered high levels of mistreatment when seeking health care. In the year prior to completing the survey, one-third of those surveyed who saw a health care provider had at least one negative experience related to being transgender, such as being verbally harassed or refused treatment because of their gender identity. Additionally, nearly one-quarter of respondents reported that they did not seek the health care they needed in the year prior to completing the survey due to fear of being mistreated as a transgender person, and 33 percent did not go to a health care provider when needed because they could not afford it.

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In 2017, Barnett joined Central Ohio Primary Care’s Upper Arlington Preventative Primary Care office. Some of her patients followed her and for several years she continued to work a half a day a week at the OSU Transgender Primary Care Clinic. At COPC, she has an interest in providing care to the LGBTQ+ population along with gender affirming primary care. She has 1,500 patients, one-third of whom identify as LGBTQ+. This growing practice couldn’t be more important to this vulnerable population in Ohio following language in the most recent budget bill that allows anyone providing medical care to refuse treatments that violate their moral, ethical or religious beliefs.

A culture of respect

One of the biggest challenges Barnett deals with is supporting patients, particularly youth who lack social support. Barnett along with her medical partners and staff work hard to promote a supportive and inclusive culture within their practice.

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Barnett has worked to develop a network in Columbus to benefit the mental health of her patients. She has helped more than 250 young adults in central Ohio get the support needed to assist with gender affirmation. She’s also worked to make patients feel at ease at her office by providing staff education and promoting a culture of respect for all patients.

“Many times, patients come to me after having a negative experience with care in the past. There’s some trauma there.” Barnett says. “Often, the first visit is really hard. It may take time to build trust and establish a therapeutic relationship. Some individuals have experienced a lot of barriers to care and a lack of family and social support. If I am able to establish a trusting relationship, I’m able to provide not just care related to gender affirmation, but also preventative care, chronic disease management and mental health care.”

As Barnett’s transgender practice has grown, she’s been able to treat patients from all over Ohio. With telehealth visits increasing during the pandemic, she’s able to treat more patients remotely. Also growing is the network of providers who help these patients. Barnett has developed relationships with surgeons, mental health providers, voice therapists and hair removal experts so there are a variety of safe and trusted places she can send her patients for the care they need.

“Central Ohio Primary Care has a well-defined focus on serving a diverse population equitably,” says Dr. Bill Wulf, COPC’s CEO. “Dr. Barnett and her practice site … have provided a valuable example and leadership to our entire organization. As a physician, Dr. Barnett has always had a focus on providing a safe space for all patient populations and looks to develop a long-term relationship in which to deliver preventative care.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.

Dr. Maria Barnett

Doctor of osteopathic medicine, D.O., Central Ohio Primary Care

Age: 39

In position since: 2017

Experience: Family medicine residency at Fairview Hospital Cleveland Clinic; has hospital privileges at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

Education: DO, Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine

Community Involvement: Enjoys education and speaking to learners of all ages. Upper Arlington Preventative Primary Care sponsored the first AIDs Walk in Upper Arlington last spring.