In September, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health released its much-anticipated standards of care (SOC8). While this update has unfortunately received intense scrutiny for its guidance about gender-diverse adolescents and youth, the SOC8 is their most evidence-based version to date. Recommendations were developed based on data from independent systematic literature reviews, background reviews, and expert opinions.1 These guidelines also recognize knowledge deficits and are intended to be flexible to meet the individual needs of transgender patients. While the scope of this column will not delve into all 258 pages of these new standards, it will highlight pertinent information on hormonal management.
Ever since the original publication of the standards of care in 1979, gender-affirming hormone therapy (GAHT) has been considered medically necessary. The approach to GAHT depends on the patient’s goals and the age at which the patient is seeking to medically transition. Given the complexity of GAHT for transgender youth and adolescents, this article will focus primarily on adult patients.
There are a few pertinent differences in the management and monitoring of GAHT in adults. For patients assigned female at birth, testosterone is the primary modality by which patients can achieve masculinizing features. GAHT for patients assigned male at birth often consists of estrogen and an androgen-lowering medication. Like its predecessor, SOC8 recommends against prescribing ethinyl estradiol because of its marked association with thromboembolic events.
While the formulations of estrogen (oral, injectable, and patches) and hormone blockers (finasteride, spironolactone, gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists, and bicalutamide) are discussed in prior standards of care, SOC8 further delineates their utilization. It suggests that transdermal estrogen should be considered in transgender women over the age of 45 who are at high risk for developing a venous thromboembolism or have a previous history of thromboembolism. Furthermore, SOC8 establishes spironolactone as the mainstay for androgen blockage and discourages routine usage of bicalutamide and finasteride because of a lack of safety data and questionable efficacy.1 Even though some patients anecdotally report increased breast growth with progesterone supplementation, there is insufficient evidence to regularly prescribe progesterone for breast development.1
Both WPATH and the Endocrine Society recommend checking serum levels of sex hormones every 3 months during the first year until stable levels are achieved, then once or twice a year thereafter.1 Hormone levels should be maintained at physiologic concentrations of the targeted gender. Some patients on feminizing GAHT often request evaluation of estrone/estradiol ratios as there was an assumption that higher ratios were associated with antagonistic effects on breast development. However, recent published evidence refutes this claim and estrone/estradiol ratios need not be measured.1
In addition to monitoring sex hormone levels, providers should check the metabolic effects that can be associated with GAHT. Both testosterone and estrogen can influence lipid panels: Testosterone can increase the red blood cell count, and spironolactone may cause hyperkalemia. While the SOC7 previously encouraged assessment of these laboratory values every 3 months, the new guidelines are more flexible in the frequency of testing of asymptomatic individuals as there is no strong evidence from published studies that supports these 3-month intervals.1
Providers are responsible for informing patients about the possible effects of GAHT on fertility. Estrogen often will cause a reduction in spermatogenesis, which may be irreversible. Patients who plan on taking estrogen should be counseled regarding sperm cryopreservation prior to starting GAHT. Even though testosterone inhibits ovulation and induces menstrual suppression, patients often regain their fertility after cessation of testosterone therapy. However, given the significant knowledge deficit about long-term fertility in transmasculine patients, providers should still offer oocyte or embryo cryopreservation.
Health care providers should collaborate with surgeons regarding preoperative and postoperative GAHT. To mitigate the risk of thromboembolism, many surgeons would stop hormones 1-4 weeks before and after gender-affirming surgery. Recent evidence does not support this practice, as studies indicate no increased risk for venous thromboembolism in individuals on GAHT undergoing surgery. These studies are consistent with other well-established guidelines on preoperative management of cisgender women taking estrogen or progestins. As exogenous sex steroids are necessary for bone health in patients who undergo gonadectomy, surgeons and other health care providers should educate patients on the importance of continuing GAHT.
There are many procedures available for gender-affirming surgery. Many of these surgeries involve three regions: the face, chest/breast, and/or genitalia (both internal and external). Prior to making a surgical referral, providers should be familiar with the surgeon’s scope of practice, performance measures, and surgical outcomes.1 For the first time, the SOC8 also addresses the surgical training of the providers who offer these procedures. While gender-affirming surgery can be performed by a variety of different specialists, training and documented supervision (often by an existing expert in gender-affirming surgery) is essential. Maintaining an active practice in these procedures, tracking surgical outcomes, and continuing education within the field of gender-affirming surgery are additional requirements for surgeons performing these complex operations.1
As their name implies, the SOC8 attempts to create a standardized guide to assist practitioners caring for gender-diverse patients. It’s important for providers to be familiar with updates while also recognizing the evolving nature of this rapidly growing field.
Dr. Brandt is an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender-affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa.
1. World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Standards of care for the health of transgender and gender diverse people, Version 8. Int J Transgend Health. 2022 Sep 15. doi:.