Commentary

How to prepare to care for transgender adolescents


 


As pediatric and adolescent gynecologists, we are seeing an increasing number of adolescents with gender identity issues and have come to believe that all obstetrician-gynecologists need to have an understanding of varying gender identities, as well as their role in managing these patients’ care.

We had the honor to assist the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) Committee on Adolescent Health Care in the development of a new Committee Opinion to guide ob.gyns. in caring for transgender adolescents (Obstet Gynecol 2017;129:e11-6). As our culture grows more aware of the nuances and spectrum of gender identity, our health care practices must grow as well. Ob.gyns. are often uniquely positioned as being among the first people transgender adolescents present to – whether it’s signaling disassociation with their gender when answering routine medical questions or directly addressing gender with them as a trusted and private resource. Even when seeing a patient too young to consider hormone therapy, an ob.gyn. can offer vital early behavioral health support, educational and community resources, and specialist referrals.

Transgender adolescent patients have likely faced negative stereotypes and stigmas in social settings or through media that make them cautious and protective of their identity. They are also more likely to face social ostracism such as bullying and/or dissent and rejection from their parents, deepening the vulnerability of their situation. As a result, transgender adolescents can have increased instances of anxiety, depression, sexual harassment, homelessness, and risk-taking behavior. Medical practices can signal to transgender patients that they are safe and welcoming from the start by offering gender neutral forms, brochures, and information for LGBT patients in the waiting room, and having sensitive employees at every step – from the front desk onward.

As we’ve just outlined, transgender adolescent patients face unique challenges, including increased rates of social and mental health risks. In response, ob.gyns. must be prepared to have a comprehensive conversation about health and well-being beyond sexual and reproductive health. They must also be equipped to address the psychosocial issues associated with transgender adolescents. This includes knowledge of what to look for and offering patients resources, education, and referrals to guarantee their health and safety.

It is important that ob.gyns. are aware that transgender men have female reproductive organs and can present with common gynecological problems such as abnormal bleeding, ovarian cysts, and torsion, as well as pregnancy and pregnancy complications. Finally, ob.gyns. can serve a unique role in counseling about fertility and fertility preservation. Thus, not only do we provide essential health care, including ongoing primary care, but we can position ourselves as part of the support network for these adolescents and their families.

Most importantly, when addressing an adolescent transgender patient, we must understand there is no uniform transgender experience. Expressing gender, sexual identity, and behavior patterns will vary from patient to patient. There are a wide range of treatment options available for transgender patients, from hormone to surgical therapies. An ob.gyn.’s responsibility is to help each individual make an informed decision, and help that patient think ahead to the future.

While this all may seem like a lot, it’s important to remember the essential components of our role as health care providers do not change because an adolescent patient is transgender. Care should always include education about their bodies, safe sex, deliberate and thoughtful assessment of symptoms or concerns, and preventive care services such as STI screenings and contraception. We are simply adding more nuanced cultural and medical understanding to those practices.

Dr. Gomez-Lobo is director of pediatric and adolescent obstetrics and gynecology, Medstar Washington Hospital Center/Children’s National Health System, Washington, D.C. Dr. Sokkary is associate professor of ob.gyn. at Navicent Health Center/Mercer School of Medicine in Macon, Ga. They are members of the ACOG Committee on Adolescent Health Care. They reported having no relevant financial disclosures.

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