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Researchers examine learning curve for gender-affirming vaginoplasty



Patient outcomes after gender-affirming vaginoplasty may improve as surgeons gain experience with the procedure, research suggests. For one surgeon, certain adverse events, including the need for revision surgery, were less likely after 50 cases.

Dr. Cecile A. Ferrando, program director of the female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery fellowship at Cleveland Clinic and director of the transgender surgery and medicine program in the Cleveland Clinic Center for LGBT Care

Dr. Cecile A. Ferrando

“As surgical programs evolve, the important question becomes: At what case threshold are cases performed safely, efficiently, and with favorable outcomes?” said Cecile A. Ferrando, MD, MPH, program director of the female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery fellowship at Cleveland Clinic and director of the transgender surgery and medicine program in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for LGBT Care.

The answer could guide training for future surgeons, Dr. Ferrando said at the virtual annual scientific meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Surgeons. Future studies should include patient-centered outcomes and data from multiple centers, other doctors said.

Transgender women who opt to surgically transition may undergo vaginoplasty. Although many reports describe surgical techniques, “there is a paucity of evidence-based data as well as few reports on outcomes,” Dr. Ferrando noted.

To describe perioperative adverse events related to vaginoplasty performed for gender affirmation and determine a minimum number of cases needed to reduce their likelihood, Dr. Ferrando performed a retrospective study of 76 patients. The patients underwent surgery between December 2015 and March 2019 and had 6-month postoperative outcomes available. Dr. Ferrando performed the procedures.

Dr. Ferrando evaluated outcomes after increments of 10 cases. After 50 cases, the median surgical time decreased to approximately 180 minutes, which an informal survey of surgeons suggested was efficient, and the rates of adverse events were similar to those in other studies. Dr. Ferrando compared outcomes from the first 50 cases with outcomes from the 26 cases that followed.

Overall, the patients had a mean age of 41 years. The first 50 patients were older on average (44 years vs. 35 years). About 83% underwent full-depth vaginoplasty. The incidence of intraoperative and immediate postoperative events was low and did not differ between the two groups. Rates of delayed postoperative events – those occurring 30 or more days after surgery – did significantly differ between the two groups, however.

After 50 cases, there was a lower incidence of urinary stream abnormalities (7.7% vs. 16.3%), introital stenosis (3.9% vs. 12%), and revision surgery (that is, elective, cosmetic, or functional revision within 6 months; 19.2% vs. 44%), compared with the first 50 cases.

The study did not include patient-centered outcomes and the results may have limited generalizability, Dr. Ferrando noted. “The incidence of serious adverse events related to vaginoplasty is low while minor events are common,” she said. “A 50-case minimum may be an adequate case number target for postgraduate trainees learning how to do this surgery.”

“I learned that the incidence of serious complications, like injuries during the surgery, or serious events immediately after surgery was quite low, which was reassuring,” Dr. Ferrando said in a later interview. “The cosmetic result and detail that is involved with the surgery – something that is very important to patients – that skill set takes time and experience to refine.”

Subsequent studies should include patient-centered outcomes, which may help surgeons understand potential “sources of consternation for patients,” such as persistent corporal tissue, poor aesthetics, vaginal stenosis, urinary meatus location, and clitoral hooding, Joseph J. Pariser, MD, commented in an interview. Dr. Pariser, a urologist who specializes in gender care at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in 2019 reviewed safety outcomes from published case series.

“In my own practice, precise placement of the urethra, familiarity with landmarks during canal dissection, and rapidity of working through steps of the surgery have all dramatically improved as our experience at University of Minnesota performing primary vaginoplasty has grown,” Dr. Pariser said.

Optimal case thresholds may vary depending on a surgeon’s background, Rachel M. Whynott, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility fellow at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said in an interview. At the University of Kansas in Kansas City, a multidisciplinary team that includes a gynecologist, a reconstructive urologist, and a plastic surgeon performs the procedure.

Dr. Whynott and colleagues recently published a retrospective study that evaluated surgical aptitude over time in a male-to-female penoscrotal vaginoplasty program . Their analysis of 43 cases identified a learning curve that was reflected in overall time in the operating room and time to neoclitoral sensation.

Investigators are “trying to add to the growing body of literature about this procedure and how we can best go about improving outcomes for our patients and improving this surgery,” Dr. Whynott said. A study that includes data from multiple centers would be useful, she added.

Dr. Ferrando disclosed authorship royalties from UpToDate. Dr. Pariser and Dr. Whynott had no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Ferrando C. SGS 2020, Abstract 09.

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