How Physicians Can Provide Better Care to Transgender Patients

Jaleesa Baulkman

March 31, 2021

People who identify as transgender experience many health disparities, in addition to lack of access to quality care. The most commonly cited barrier to healthcare is the lack of providers who are knowledgeable about transgender healthcare, according to past surveys.

Dr K. Ashley Brandt

Even those who do seek care often have unpleasant experiences. A 2015 survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 33% of those who saw a healthcare provider reported at least one  unfavorable experience related to being transgender, such as being verbally harassed or refused treatment because of their gender identity. In fact, 23% of those surveyed say they did not seek healthcare they needed in the past year because of fear of being mistreated as a transgender person.

To find out how physicians can provide more compassionate, effective care for this group, Medscape spoke with K. Ashley Brandt, DO, gender-affirming surgeon and obstetrician/gynecologist in West Reading, Pennsylvania. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Medscape: Surveys have shown that many people who identify as transgender will only seek transition care, not primary or preventive care. Why is that?

Dr Brandt: My answer is multifactorial. Transgender patients do seek primary care — just not as readily. There's a lot of misconceptions about healthcare needs for the LGBT community in general. For example, lesbian or bisexual women may be not as well informed about the need for Pap smears compared with their heterosexual counterparts. These misconceptions are further exacerbated in the transgender community.

The fact that a lot of patients seek only transition-related care, but not preventive services, such as primary care and gynecologic care, is also related to fears of discrimination and lack of education of providers. These patients are afraid when they walk into an office that they will be misgendered or their physician won't be familiar with their healthcare needs.

What can clinics and clinicians do to create a safe and welcoming environment?

It starts with educating office staff about terminology and gender identities.

A key feature of our EHR is the sexual orientation and gender identity platform, which asks questions about a patient's gender identity, sexual orientation, sex assigned at birth, and organ inventory. These data are then found in the patient information tab and are just as relevant as their insurance status, age, and date of birth.

There are many ways a doctor's office can signal to patients that they are inclusive. They can hang LGBTQ-friendly flags or symbols or a sign saying, "We have an anti-discrimination policy" in the waiting room.  A welcoming environment can also be achieved by revising patient questionnaires or forms so that they aren't gender-specific or binary.

Given that the patient may have limited contact with a primary care clinician, how do you prioritize what you address during the visit?

Similar to cisgender patients, it depends initially on the age of the patient and the reason for the visit. The priorities of an otherwise healthy transgender patient in their 20s are going to be largely the same as for a cisgender patient of the same age. As patients age in the primary care world, you're addressing more issues, such as colorectal screening, lipid disorders, and mammograms, and that doesn't change. For the most part, the problems that you address should be specific for that age group.

It becomes more complicated when you add in factors such as hormone therapy and whether patients have had any type of gender-affirming surgery. Those things can change the usual recommendations for screening or risk assessment. We try to figure out what routine health maintenance and cancer screening a patient needs based on age and risk factors, in addition to hormone status and surgical state.

Do you think that many physicians are educated about the care of underserved populations such as transgender patients?

Yes and no. We are definitely getting better at it. For example, last month, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a committee opinion highlighting transgender care. So organizations are starting to prioritize these populations and recognize that they are, in fact, underserved and they have special healthcare needs.

However, the knowledge gaps are still pretty big. I get calls daily from providers asking questions about how to manage patients on hormones, or how to examine a patient who has undergone a vaginoplasty. I hear a lot of horror stories from transgender patients who had their hormones stopped for absurd and medically misinformed reasons.

But I definitely think it's getting better and it's being addressed at all levels —the medical school level, the residency level, and the attending level. It just takes time to inform people and for people to get used to the healthcare needs of these patients.

What should physicians keep in mind when treating patients who identify as transgender?

First and foremost, understanding the terminology and the difference between gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation. Being familiar with that language and being able to speak that language very comfortably and not being awkward about it is a really important thing for primary care physicians and indeed any physician who treats transgender patients.

Physicians should also be aware that any underserved population has higher rates of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. Obviously, that goes along with being underserved and the stigma and the disparities that exist for these patients. Having providers educate themselves about what those disparities are and how they impact a patient's daily life and health is paramount to knowing how to treat patients.

What are your top three health concerns for these patients and how do you address them?

I think mental health and safety is probably the number one for me. About 41% of transgender adults have attempted suicide. That number is roughly 51% in transgender youth. That is an astonishing number. These patients have much higher rates of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault, especially trans women and trans women of color. So understanding those statistics is huge.

Obesity, smoking, and substance abuse are my next three. Again, those are things that should be addressed at any visit, regardless of the gender identity, sexual orientation of the patient, but those rates are particularly high in this population.

Fertility and long-term care for patients should be addressed. Many patients who identify as transgender are told they can't have a family. As a primary care physician, you may see a patient before they are seen by an ob/gyn or surgeon. Talking about what a patient's long-term life goals are with fertility and family planning, and what that looks like for them, is a big thing for me. Other providers may not feel that's a concern, but I believe it should be discussed before initiation of hormone therapy, which can significantly impact fertility in some patients.

Are there nuances to the physical examination that primary care physicians should be aware of when dealing with transmasculine patients vs transfeminine patients?

Absolutely. And this interview can't cover the scope of those nuances. An example that comes to mind is the genital exam. For transgender women who have undergone a vaginoplasty, the pelvic exam can be very affirming. Whereas for transgender men, a gynecologic exam can significantly exacerbate dysphoria and there are ways to conduct the exam to limit this discomfort and avoid creating a traumatic experience for the patient. It's important to be aware that the genital exam, or any type of genitourinary exam, can be either affirming or not affirming.

Sexually transmitted infections are up in the general population, and the trans population is at even higher risk. What should physicians think about when they assess this risk?

It's really important for primary care clinicians and for gynecologists to learn to be comfortable talking about sexual practices, because what people do behind closed doors is really a key to how to counsel patients about safe sex.

People are well aware of the need to have safe sex. However, depending on the type of sex that you're having, what body parts go where, what is truly safe can vary and people may not know, for example, to wear a condom when sex toys are involved or that a transgender male on testosterone can become pregnant during penile-vaginal intercourse. Providers really should be very educated on the array of sexual practices that people have and how to counsel them about those. They should know how to ask patients the gender identity of their sexual partners, the sexual orientation of their partners, and what parts go where during sex.

Providers should also talk to patients about PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis], whether they identify as cisgender or transgender. My trans patients tend to be a lot more educated about PrEP than other patients. It's something that many of the residents, even in a standard gynecologic clinic, for example, don't talk to cisgender patients about because of the stigma surrounding HIV. Many providers still think that the only people who are at risk for HIV are men who have sex with men. And while those rates are higher in some populations, depending on sexual practices, those aren't the only patients who qualify for PrEP.

Overall, in order to counsel patients about STIs and safe sexual practices, providers should learn to be comfortable talking about sex.

Do you have any strategies on how to make the appointment more successful in addressing those issues?

Bedside manner is a hard thing to teach, and comfort in talking about sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation can vary — but there are a lot of continuing medical education courses that physicians can utilize through the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

If providers start to notice an influx of patients who identify as transgender or if they want to start seeing transgender patients, it's really important for them to have that training before they start interacting with patients. In all of medicine, we sort of learn as we go, but this patient population has been subjected to discrimination, violence, error, and misgendering. They have dealt with providers who didn't understand their healthcare needs. While this field is evolving, knowing how to appropriately address a patient (using their correct name, pronouns, etc) is an absolute must.

That needs to be part of a provider's routine vernacular and not something that they sort of stumble through. You can scare a patient away as soon as they walk into the office with an uneducated front desk staff and things that are seen in the office. Seeking out those educational tools, being aware of your own deficits as a provider and the educational needs of your office, and addressing those needs is really key.

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