Clinical Review

Transgender Care in the Primary Care Setting: A Review of Guidelines and Literature

For patients who desire transgender care, providers must use appropriate language, know the basics of cross-sex hormone therapy, and understand the risks and adverse effects of treatment options.

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals face significant difficulties in obtaining high-quality,compassionate medical care, much of which has been attributed to inadequate provider knowledge. In this article, the authors present a transgender patient seen in primary care and discuss the knowledge gleaned to inform future care of this patient as well as the care of other similar patients.

The following case discussion and review of the literature also seeks to improve the practice of other primary care providers (PCPs) who are inexperienced in this arena. This article aims to review the basics to permit PCPs to venture into transgender care, including a review of basic terminology; a few interactive tips; and basics in medical and hormonal treatment, follow-up, contraindications, and risk. More details can be obtained through electronic consultation (Transgender eConsult) in the VA.

Case Presentation

A 35-year-old patient who was assigned male sex at birth presented to the primary care clinic to discuss her desire to undergo male-to-female (MTF) transition. The patient stated that she had started taking female estrogen hormones 9 years previously purchased from craigslist without a prescription. She tried oral contraceptives as well as oral and injectable estradiol. While the patient was taking injectable estradiol she had breast growth, decreased anxiety, weight gain, and a feeling of peacefulness. The patient also reported that she had received several laser treatments for whole body hair removal, beginning 8 to 10 years before and more regularly in the past 2 to 3 years. She asked whether transition-related care could be provided, because she could no longer afford the hormones.

The patient wanted to transition because she felt that “Women are beautiful, the way they carry themselves, wear their hair, their nails, I want to be like that.” She also mentioned that when she watched TV, she envisioned herself as a woman. She reported that she enjoyed wearing her mother’s clothing since age 10, which made her feel more like herself. The patient noted that she had desired to remove her body hair since childhood but could not afford to do it until recently. She bought female clothing, shoes and makeup, and did her nails from a young age. The patient also reported that she did not “know what transgender was” until a decade ago.

The patient struggled with her identity growing up; however, she tried not to think about it or talk about it with anyone. She related that she was ashamed of her thoughts and that only recently had made peace with being transgender. Thus, she pursued talking to her medical provider about transitioning. The patient reported that she felt more energetic when taking female hormones and was better able to discuss the issue. Specifically, she noted that if she were not on estrogen now she would not be able to talk about transitioning.

The patient related that she has done extensive research about transitioning, including reading online about other transgender people. She noted that she was aware of “possible backlash with society,” but ultimately, she had decided that transitioning was the right decision for her.

She expressed a desire to have an orchiectomy and continue hormonal therapy to permit her “to have a more feminine face, soft skin, hairless body, big breasts, more fat around the hips, and a high-pitched voice.” She additionally related a desire to be in a stable relationship and be her true self. She also stated that she had not identified herself as a female to anyone yet but would like to soon. The patient reported a history of depression, especially during her military service when she wanted to be a woman but did not feel she understood what was going on or how to manage her feelings. She said that for the past 2 months she felt much happier since beginning to take estradiol 4 mg orally daily, which she had found online. She also tried to purchase anti-androgen medication but could not afford it. In addition, she said that she would like to eventually proceed with gender affirmation surgery.

She was currently having sex with men, primarily via anal receptive intercourse. She had no history of sexually transmitted infections but reported that she did not use condoms regularly. She had no history of physical or sexual abuse. The patient was offered referral to the HIV clinic to receive HIV preexposure prophylaxis therapy (emtricitabine + tenofovir), which she declined, but she was counseled on safe sex practice.

The patient was referred to psychiatry both for supportive mental health care and to clarify that her concomitant mental health issues would not preclude the prescription of gender-affirming hormone treatment. Based on the psychiatric evaluation, the patient was felt to be appropriate for treatment with feminizing hormone therapy. The psychiatric assessment also noted that although the patient had a history of psychosis, she was not exhibiting psychotic symptoms currently, and this would not be a contraindication to treatment.

After discussion of the risks and benefits of cross-sex hormone therapy, the patient was started on estradiol 4 mg orally daily, as well as spironolactone 50 mg daily. She was then switched to estradiol 10 mg intramuscular every 2 weeks with the aim of using a less thrombogenic route of administration.


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