For many people and for a variety of reasons, talking to one’s doctor can be a stressful experience. But for transgender patients in America, talking to medical professionals can be not only stressful but traumatic. Trans individuals are often refused services, asked uncomfortable questions about their genitalia, and called by their “dead” name (the name they were given at birth) when they visit their doctor. These negative experiences have damaging consequences to the mental health of trans patients and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and even suicide.
It’s vitally important for trans people to get the healthcare they need while being treated fairly and with respect. As history shows us, discrimination against trans people in medical offices and hospitals occurs on a daily basis. However, many of these people are standing up for themselves and taking action so other trans patients don’t have to suffer through the same ordeal in the future.
In 2016 a transmasculine teen in rural Georgia was repeatedly and intentionally misgendered by his doctor while being given his testosterone injection. A week later his medical provider called to inform him there would no longer be staff available to give him his injections and that he should try a different clinic nearby. According to Georgia state law the clinic’s refusal is legal; the teen had to travel to Atlanta to receive treatment.
This teen is not alone in his struggle to access appropriate healthcare. A report released by Human Rights Watch in July documented the high rates of discrimination transgender patients face when trying to access care. The report found that 29 percent of trans individuals reported to have an experience in which a provider refused to see them because of their gender identity, and 21 percent of trans patients said a provider used discriminatory language toward them.
In January the Trump administration unveiled the creation of a religious freedom division within the US Department of Health and Human Services, which will defend and support healthcare providers who refuse service on the basis of their religious and moral beliefs. With this in place, doctors can refuse service to trans people purely on the basis of religious liberty, and it’s completely legal to do so.
Asked Uncomfortable Questions and Called by Their “Dead” Name
When seeking medical care, transgender patients are often asked intrusive and unnecessary questions about themselves and their body. Tanya Walker, a fifty-three-year-old trans woman, said doctors repeatedly asked questions about her genitals while she coughed up blood from lung cancer. “It seemed like they weren’t going to treat me unless I told them what genitals I had,” Walker said about her 2013 experience.
In addition to being asked inappropriate questions, trans patients are often referred to by their dead name by medical providers. Even when they have the right paperwork, doctors still actively misgender trans patients without acknowledging their mistake.
For many of these patients, going to the doctor is simply too stressful, and they refuse to go. According to a 2016 paper in Current Opinion in Endocrinology & Diabetes and Obesity, 30 percent of transgender patients report delaying or not seeking care because of discrimination, and they are four times more likely to delay needed care.
Research by the University of Cincinnati’s School of Nursing found that communication between patients and their doctor or nurse is one of the main factors contributing to patient satisfaction. Trans patients are at an increased risk of poor communication with their medical care provider. Thankfully, some steps are being taken to ensure an educated and respectful healthcare environment.
There are several recently launched programs helping medical students become better prepared to treat trans patients. The University of Louisville in Kentucky, created a medical program in 2015 called the eQuality Project, which trains students in common healthcare treatments for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Students learn about transgender terminology and LGBTQ patient care at Case Western Reserve in Ohio, and New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital offers fellowships in transgender care at their Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery.
These programs signal a hopeful future toward better and more accessible healthcare options for transgender patients, who, like everyone, deserve equality, fairness, and dignity when seeking medical care and treatment.