People who identify as transgender experience many health disparities, in addition to lack of access to quality care. The most commonly cited barrier is the lack of providers who are knowledgeable about transgender health care, according to past surveys.
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 health care 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 health care they needed in the past year because of fear of being mistreated as a transgender person.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: Surveys have shown that many people who identify as transgender will seek only 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 health care 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 health care needs.
What can clinics and clinicians do to create a safe and welcoming environment?
Dr. Brandt: 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?
Dr. Brandt: 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?
Dr. Brandt: Yes and no. We are definitely getting better at it. For example, 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 health care 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 health care needs of these patients.
What should physicians keep in mind when treating patients who identify as transgender?
Dr. Brandt: 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 health concerns for these patients and how do you address them?
Dr. Brandt: 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 or 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.