Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women
This information should not be construed as dictating an exclusive course of treatment or procedure to be followed.
ABSTRACT: Transgender individuals face harassment, discrimination, and rejection within our society. Lack of awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity in health care communities eventually leads to inadequate access to, underutilization of, and disparities within the health care system for this population. Although the care for these patients is often managed by a specialty team, obstetrician–gynecologists should be prepared to assist or refer transgender individuals with routine treatment and screening as well as hormonal and surgical therapies. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and urges public and private health insurance plans to cover the treatment of gender identity disorder.
The Spectrum of Transgender Identity
Transgender is a broad term used for people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from their assigned sex at birth Box 1 1. However, there is no universally accepted definition of the word “transgender” because of the lack of agreement regarding what groups of people are considered “transgender.” In addition, definitions often vary by geographic region and by individual 2. The American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, considers transgender individuals to be individuals with a disturbance in sexual or gender identity. Any combination of sexual and gender identity is possible for transgender individuals Box 2. The diagnosis of gender identity disorder is only established for individuals with clinically significant distress and functional impairment caused by the persistent discomfort with one’s assigned sex and primary and secondary sex characteristics. If untreated, gender identity disorder can result in psychologic dysfunction, depression, suicidal ideation, and even death 3.
Transsexual—an individual who strongly identifies with the other sex and seeks hormones or gender-affirmation surgery or both to feminize or masculinize the body; may live full-time in the crossgender role.*
Crossdresser—an individual who dresses in the clothing of the opposite sex for reasons that include a need to express femininity or masculinity, artistic expression, performance, or erotic pleasure, but do not identify as that gender. The term “transvestite” was previously used to describe a crossdresser, but it is now considered pejorative and should not be used.†
Bigendered—individuals who identify as both or alternatively male and female, as no gender, or as a gender outside the male or female binary. †
Intersex—individuals with a set of congenital variations of the reproductive system that are not considered typical for either male or female. This includes newborns with ambiguous genitalia, a condition that affects 1 in 2,000 newborns in the United States each year.‡
Female-to-male—refers to someone who was identified as female at birth but who identifies and portrays his gender as male. This term is often used after the individual has taken some steps to express his gender as male, or after medically transitioning through hormones or surgery. Also known as FTM or transman.†
Male-to-female—refers to someone who was identified as male at birth but who identifies and portrays her gender as female. This term is often used after the individual has taken some steps to express her gender as female, or after medically transitioning through hormones or surgery. Also known as MTF or transwoman.†
*The health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: building a foundation for better understanding. Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities, Board on the Health of Select Populations, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011. Available at: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13128&page=R1. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
†Fenway Health. Glossary of gender and transgender terms. Boston (MA): Fenway Health; 2010. Available at: http://www.fenwayhealth.org/site/DocServer/Handout_7-C_Glossary_of_Gender_and_Transgender_Terms__fi.pdf. Retrieved July 22, 2011.
‡Dreger AD. “Ambiguous sex”--or ambivalent medicine? Ethical issues in the treatment of intersexuality. Hastings Cent Rep 1998; 28:24–35.
Sexual Identity and Gender Identity Definitions
Sex—designation of a person at birth as male or female based on anatomy and biology.*
Gender identity—a person’s innate identification as a man, woman, or something else that may or may not correspond to the person’s external body or assigned sex at birth.*
Gender expression—how individuals present themselves socially, including clothing, hairstyle, jewelry, and physical characteristics, including speech and mannerisms. This may not be the same gender in all settings.*
Sexual orientation—a person’s physical, romantic, emotional, and/or spiritual attraction to individuals of the same (lesbian or gay), different (heterosexual), or both (bisexual) biologic sexes. Sexual orientation does not define the real-life sexual practices and behaviors of an individual. *
Sexual behavior—the sexual encounters and behaviors of the individual. This is likely to be the most important factor in assessing the risk of sexually transmitted infections. Sexual behavior differs from sexual orientation; for example, not all individuals who engage in same-sex behaviors view themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Legal sex—sex as stated on legal identifications, forms, and documents. Transgender individuals may adopt a second name other than their legal name with which they may prefer to be addressed. Transgender persons should be asked for their preferred name, even if it differs from their legal name and sex. State regulations vary and it may be difficult or impossible for a transgender individual to meet that state’s requirements to change their legal sex.†
*Fenway Health. Glossary of gender and transgender terms. Boston (MA): Fenway Health; 2010. Available at: http://www.fenwayhealth. org/site/DocServer/Handout_7-C_Glossary_of_Gender_and_Transgender_Terms__fi.pdf. Retrieved July 22, 2011.
†This is a significant issue for transgender individuals. Some states have adopted progressive laws that do not require gender-affirmation surgery or an original birth certificate; instead, these laws allow individuals to change their legal sex with a letter from their health care providers stating that the individuals live their lives as this gender. See the National Center for Transgender Equality www.transequality.org and the Transgender Law and Policy Institute www.transgenderlaw.org for more information, including descriptions of state laws.
Prevalence rates of transgender populations are not clearly established; however, studies suggest that transgender individuals constitute a small but substantial population 4. Additional research is needed among this population as outlined by the Institute of Medicine Report, The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding 2.
The social and economic marginalization of transgender individuals is widespread. Harassment, discrimination, and rejection occur frequently within an individual’s own family and affect educational, employment, and housing opportunities.
Transgender individuals, particularly young transgender individuals, are disproportionately represented in the homeless population 5. Once homeless, individuals may be denied access to shelters because of their gender or are placed in inappropriate housing. Subsequently, many homeless transgender individuals turn to survival sex (the exchange of sex for food, clothing, shelter, or other basic needs), which increases the risk of exposure to sexually transmitted infections and becoming victims of violence 6. In one small study, 35% of male-to-female transgender individuals tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), 20% were homeless, and 37% reported physical abuse 7.
Barriers to Health Care
Within the medical community, transgender individuals face significant barriers to health care. This includes the failure of most health insurance plans to cover the cost of mental health services, cross-sex hormone therapy, or gender affirmation surgery. This barrier exists despite evidence that such treatments are safe and effective and that cross-gender behavior and gender identity issues are not an issue of choice for the individual and cannot be reversed with psychiatric treatment 8. With medical and psychiatric care that affirms transgender identity, the transgender individual can lead an enhanced, functional life 9.
The consequences of inadequate treatment are staggering. Fifty-four percent of transgender youth have attempted suicide and 21% resort to self-mutilation. More than 50% of persons identified as transgender have used injected hormones that were obtained illegally or used outside of conventional medical settings. Additionally, such individuals frequently resort to the illegal and dangerous use of self-administered silicone injections to spur masculine or feminine physiologic changes 5. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, therefore, urges public and private health insurance plans to cover the treatment of gender identity disorder.
Caring for Transgender Individuals
Obstetrician–gynecologists should be prepared to assist or refer transgender individuals for routine treatment and screening as well as hormonal and surgical therapies. Basic preventive services, like sexually transmitted infection testing and cancer screening, can be provided without specific expertise in transgender care. Hormonal and surgical therapies for transgender patients may be requested, but should be managed in consultation with health care providers with expertise in specialized care and treatment of transgender patients (see Resources). Physical and emotional issues for transgender individuals and the effects of aging, as in all other individuals, affect the health status of this population and should be addressed. Health care providers who are morally opposed to providing care to this population should refer them elsewhere for care. For more information, a resource guide on health care for transgender individuals is available at www.acog.org/departments/dept_notice.cfm?recno=18&bulletin=5825.
Creating a Welcoming Environment
Health care providers’ discomfort when treating transgender individuals may alienate patients and result in lower quality or inappropriate care as well as deter them from seeking future medical care 10. Excellent resources exist to facilitate the provision of culturally competent care for transgender patients 10. Adding a “transgender” option to check boxes on patient visit records can help to better capture information about transgender patients, and could be a sign of acceptance to that person 10. Questions should be framed in ways that do not make assumptions about gender identity, sexual orientation, or behavior. It is more appropriate for clinicians to ask their patients which terms they prefer 1. Language should be inclusive, allowing the patient to decide when and what to disclose. The adoption and posting of a nondiscrimination policy can also signal health care providers and patients alike that all persons will be treated with dignity and respect. Assurance of confidentiality can allow for a more open discussion, and confidentiality must be ensured if a patient is being referred to a different health care provider. Training staff to increase their knowledge and sensitivity toward transgender patients will also help facilitate a positive experience for the patient 10. It is important to prepare now to treat a future transgender patient. Additional guidelines for creating a welcoming office environment for transgender patients have been developed by the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and can be found at http://www.glma.org/_data/n_0001/resources/live/GLMA%20guidelines%202006%20FINAL.pdf.
Gender Transition: World Professional Association for Transgender Health Guidelines
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health is a multidisciplinary professional society representing the specialties of medicine, psychology, social sciences, and law. Their published clinical guidelines about the psychiatric, psychologic, medical, and surgical management of gender identity disorders are widely used by specialists in transgender health care 11, but are not universally accepted by all members of the transgender health community because critics consider them to be overly restrictive and inflexible.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines describe the transition from one gender to another in three stages: 1) living in the gender role consistent with gender identity; 2) the use of cross-sex hormone therapy after living in the new gender role for at least 3 months; 3) gender-affirmation surgery after living in the new gender role and using hormonal therapy for at least 12 months. Additional clinical guidelines have been published by the Endocrine Society 12.
Female-to-Male Transgender Individuals
Methyltestosterone injections every 2 weeks are usually sufficient to suppress menses and induce masculine secondary sex characteristics 13. Before receiving androgen therapy, patients should be screened for medical contraindications and have periodic laboratory testing, including hemoglobin and hematocrit to evaluate for polycythemia, liver function tests, and serum testosterone level assessments (goal is a mid normal male range of 500 microgram/dL), while receiving the treatment.
Hysterectomy, with or without salpingo-oophorectomy, is commonly part of the surgical process. An obstetrician–gynecologist who has no specialized expertise in transgender care may be asked to perform this surgery, and also may be consulted for routine reasons such as dysfunctional bleeding or pelvic pain. Reconstructive surgery should be performed by a urologist, gynecologist, plastic surgeon, or general surgeon who has specialized competence and training in this field.
Age-appropriate screening for breast cancer and cervical cancer should be continued unless mastectomy or removal of the cervix has occurred. For patients using androgen therapy who have not had a complete hysterectomy, there may be an increased risk of endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer 13.
Male-to-Female Transgender Individuals
Estrogen therapy results in gynecomastia, reduced hair growth, redistribution of fat, and reduced testicular volume. All patients considering therapy should be screened for medical contraindications. After surgery, doses of estradiol, 2–4 mg/d, or conjugated equine estrogen, 2.5 mg/d, are often sufficient to keep total testosterone levels to normal female levels of less than 25 ng/dL. Nonoral therapy also can be offered. It is recommended that male-to-female transgender patients receiving estrogen therapy have an annual prolactin level assessment and visual field examination to screen for prolactinoma 13.
Surgery usually involves penile and testicular excision and the creation of a neovagina 14. Reported complications of surgery include vaginal and urethral stenosis, fistula formation, problems with remnants of erectile tissue, and pain. Vaginal dilation of the neovagina is required to maintain patency. Other surgical procedures that may be performed include breast implants and nongenital surgery, such as facial feminization surgery.
Age-appropriate screening for breast and prostate cancer is appropriate for male-to-female transgender patients. Opinion varies regarding the need for Pap testing in this population. In patients who have a neocervix created from the glans penis, routine cytologic examination of the neocervix may be indicated 15. The glans are more prone to cancerous changes than the skin of the penile shaft, and intraepithelial neoplasia of the glans is more likely to progress to invasive carcinoma than is intraepithelial neoplasia of other penile skin 14.
Obstetrician–gynecologists should be prepared to assist or refer transgender individuals. Physicians are urged to eliminate barriers to access to care for this population through their own individual efforts. An important step is to identify the sexual orientation and gender identity status of all patients as a routine part of clinical encounters and recognize that many transgender individuals may not identify themselves. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists urges health care providers to foster nondiscriminatory practices and policies to increase identification and to facilitate quality health care for transgender individuals, both in assisting with the transition if desired as well as providing long-term preventive health care.
Select clinics with expertise in treating transgender individuals:
Fenway Community Health www.fenwayhealth.org
University of Minnesota, Center for Sexual Health www.phs.umn.edu/clinic/home.html
Callen-Lorde Community Health Center www.callen-lorde.org
Tom Waddell Health Center www.sfdph.org/dph/comupg/oservices/medSvs/hlthCtrs/TransgenderHlthCtr.asp