Caring for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Persons: What Clinicians Should Know

David A. Klein, MD, MPH; Scott L. Paradise, MD; Emily T. Goodwin, MD


Am Fam Physician. 2018;98(11):645-653. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Persons whose experienced or expressed gender differs from their sex assigned at birth may identify as transgender. Transgender and gender-diverse persons may have gender dysphoria (i.e., distress related to this incongruence) and often face substantial health care disparities and barriers to care. Gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation, sex development, and external gender expression. Each construct is culturally variable and exists along continuums rather than as dichotomous entities. Training staff in culturally sensitive terminology and transgender topics (e.g., use of chosen name and pronouns), creating welcoming and affirming clinical environments, and assessing personal biases may facilitate improved patient interactions. Depending on their comfort level and the availability of local subspecialty support, primary care clinicians may evaluate gender dysphoria and manage applicable hormone therapy, or monitor well-being and provide primary care and referrals. The history and physical examination should be sensitive and tailored to the reason for each visit. Clinicians should identify and treat mental health conditions but avoid the assumption that such conditions are related to gender identity. Preventive services should be based on the patient's current anatomy, medication use, and behaviors. Gender-affirming hormone therapy, which involves the use of an estrogen and antiandrogen, or of testosterone, is generally safe but partially irreversible. Specialized referral-based surgical services may improve outcomes in select patients. Adolescents experiencing puberty should be evaluated for reversible puberty suppression, which may make future affirmation easier and safer. Aspects of affirming care should not be delayed until gender stability is ensured. Multidisciplinary care may be optimal but is not universally available.


In the United States, approximately 150,000 youth and 1.4 million adults identify as transgender.[1,2] As sociocultural acceptance patterns evolve, clinicians will likely care for an increasing number of transgender persons.[3] However, data from a large observational study suggests that 24% of transgender persons report unequal treatment in health care environments, 19% report refusal of care altogether, and 33% do not seek preventive services.[4] Approximately one-half report that they have taught basic tenets of transgender care to their health care professional.[4]

eTable A provides definitions of terms used in this article. Transgender describes persons whose experienced or expressed gender differs from their sex assigned at birth.[5,6] Gender dysphoria describes distress or problems functioning that may be experienced by transgender and gender-diverse persons; this term should be used to describe distressing symptoms rather than to pathologize.[7,8] Gender incongruence, a diagnosis in the International Classification of Diseases, 11th revision (ICD-11),[9] describes the discrepancy between a person's experienced gender and assigned sex but does not imply dysphoria or a preference for treatment.[10] The terms transgender and gender incongruence generally are not used to describe sexual orientation, sex development, or external gender expression, which are related but distinct phenomena.[5,7,8,11] It may be helpful to consider the above constructs as culturally variable, nonbinary, and existing along continuums rather than as dichotomous entities.[5,8,12,13] For clarity, the term transgender will be used as an umbrella term in this article to indicate gender incongruence, dysphoria, or diversity.