SunMum is a UK parent with kids who have been affected by gender ideology. She can be found on Twitter @Mum3Sun
If you are a medical care provider and you have concerns about the safety and appropriateness of prescribing hormones and surgery to young people who are uncomfortable with their bodies, you are not alone. Trans activists frequently cite the non-existent ‘consensus of the medical community’ to argue that the only effective way of treating gender dysphoria is social and medical transition. However, in this carefully researched piece, SunMum reveals that a growing number of general practitioners (GPs) in the UK appear to feel uncomfortable providing transgender health services.
Special note to UK readers: If you are concerned about proposed changes regarding transgender health services in this country, please complete the NHS survey by October 16. A helpful guide can be found here.
The recent sudden increase in young people identifying as trans presents a quandary for the UK’s National Health Service. Trans activists demand access to ‘life saving’ health care but there are simply not enough gender specialists to deal with all the new patients. Currently NHS England is holding a twelve–week public consultation on specialised gender identity services for adults who, worryingly, they define as ‘17 and above’. But it seems that not all GPs are happy with the role they are being asked to play. The current arrangement is that the patient’s own GP is responsible for ‘prescribing, on the recommendation of the specialist team’. But according to the Guide to Consultation ‘a small but significant and increasing proportion of GPs do not feel able to accept responsibility for prescribing’.
Why are GPs increasingly unhappy to prescribe gender medicine? Surely the profile of transgender has never been higher as trans charities work to ‘Embrace. Empower. Educate’?
Zara Aziz, a GP partner in Bristol writing in the Guardian newspaper in August 2017 in response to the consultation, is concerned about the demands placed on GPs by what she describes as ‘a niche field’ of medicine. GPs are asked to monitor gender treatment through blood and hormone levels. And since 2016, new British Medical Association guidelines ask them in some circumstances – where patients are self-medicating with hormones or where there is self-harm or risk of suicide – to provide “bridging prescriptions” for emergency hormones. This new demand has met with resistance from the General Practitioners Committee which states that GPs ‘should not be obliged to prescribe “bridging prescriptions’’’. So the BMA and the GPs own organisation are in conflict. According to the GPC, the British Medical Association’s report ‘fails to address the resulting significant medicolegal implications for GPs, and neglects the non-pharmacological needs of [gender dysphoric] patients.’ It almost sounds as if GPs would prefer psychotherapy to medication for these patients. As Dr Aziz put it, GPs are worried about ‘the risk of complaints and litigation against family doctors’.
GPs have clearly noticed the sudden increase in demand for gender medicine. Zara Aziz reports that ‘this year I have seen three gender dysphoria patients (although I have not prescribed any treatment for them yet), but before that it was that many in nine years.’ Like many of us, these reluctant GPs seem to be waking up to the realisation that something strange is going on. Just 10 years ago the number of adolescents who wanted to transition to the opposite gender was vanishingly small; today they seem to be in every school.
If a GP does go ahead and offer a ‘bridging prescription’ for hormones, she will be doing so off-label; these drugs are tested and licensed for other uses. As the NHS consultation document points out: ‘This arrangement differs from prescribing practice in many other secondary and tertiary care services, particularly when prescribing for ‘off label’ indications.’
Gender medicine asks GPs to behave in ways for which they have not been trained. Perhaps the protocols of gender specialists are increasingly diverging from those of other medical specialties, and this gives the doctors pause?
Or perhaps these GPs are concerned about the influence that activist groups like Mermaids and Action for Trans Health are having on transgender health care. After all, these groups are pushing for earlier and swifter intervention. In evidence to the UK Parliament Transgender Equality Inquiry in 2015, Susie Green of Mermaids spoke of the frustration of parents with NHS treatment pathways and explained that her organisation helped them to access early intervention abroad:
‘We have current conversations going on; I have at least six families who have children who are pubertal who are looking at that option now and are actively contacting the Hamburg centres and America to access that treatment, because they know that they are not going to get it here within the NHS.’ (Q58)
Many activist groups believe the role of the clinician is only to supply the drugs and medication requested by the transgender patient. Perhaps GPs are concerned that activists are driving treatment decisions that rightfully belong in the hands of medical professionals.
In 2009, one of the leading British gender specialists, Dr Stuart Lorimer, a psychiatric consultant at Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic and founder of GenderCare, a London private gender clinic, was asked what he saw as his biggest impediment in the development of gender identity services. The answer was ‘medical colleagues, GPs, other psychiatrists’. Lorimer mentioned a survey of 1,000 doctors of which 84 percent felt that gender services are ‘not legitimate, not deserved, should not be in the NHS’.
It is clear that a consensus on the protocols of transgender medicine does not exist outside the small group of specialists. A much-cited Swedish study from 2011 describes the standard treatment for gender dysphoria as ‘a unique intervention not only in psychiatry but in all of medicine’. Searching for parallels, one contributor to 4thwavenow had to go as far back as lobotomy. No other contemporary psychiatric therapy, after all, includes ‘the surgical removal of [healthy] body parts.’
Transgender medicine is not just a specialized field but something of a club. A 2003 Dutch study asked 382 Dutch psychiatrists about their experience of ‘diagnosing and treating patients with gender identity disorder’ and found that ‘[a] small number of psychiatrists’ were responsible for a large proportion of the referrals to ‘specialized sex reassignment therapy centres’. The study concludes that ‘the therapy options proposed to patients with gender identity disorder depend heavily on the personal preferences of psychiatrists’. (Am J Psychiatry 2003; 160:1332–1336) Personal preference is not a reassuring basis for medical treatment.
In the UK it seems that nothing much has changed in the 14 years since the Dutch study. Transgender medicine continues to be in the hands of a small group of clinicians and the NHS consultation guide cited above notes that ‘there is limited collaboration and sharing of best practice across the current providers’. A small number of treatment centres operate on the basis of limited evidence about outcomes.
It’s both welcome – and worrying – that the NHS is only now bidding for research into gender medicine. The commissioning brief acknowledges ‘the lack of a UK evidence base for the NHS to inform decisions about gender identity health services’. And the research bid notes that ‘the long-term iatrogenic impacts of hormonal treatments and surgeries on young people and adults are largely unknown, but some studies show some treatments increase risks of several long-term conditions including cardiovascular and renal diseases, and fracture risk, while research on user satisfaction and psychological outcomes in the UK is of small scale and duration.’ These treatment protocols, in other words, could be causing long term damage – we don’t know enough to rule this out.
When evidence is lacking, we might expect doctors to be cautious. But instead of trying to understand the reluctance of so many GPs, trans activists demand swifter interventions and ascribe medical caution to bigotry. Zara Aziz explains that ‘any reticence on our part to prescribe can be challenged and can sometimes be misinterpreted for prejudice.’ Specialists and activists work to bypass the caution of mainstream doctors. Lorimer’s private GenderCare clinic is designed specifically to get round the reservations of GPs. He explains that:
In my GenderCare clinic, I saw those people who’d yet to reach a GIC, whose GPs had stalled, dismissed or, in one memorable case, informed them that no such service had ever existed in the UK.
Guidance for NHS clinicians who also offer private treatment issued in May 2009 recommended that ‘specialists should as a general rule make it clear to members of the public that they usually do not accept patients without a referral from a GP or other practitioner.’
GPs may not subscribe to the conventions of gender clinicians, but they do tend to know their patients and their family situations. And that, more than anything else, may explain the increasing reluctance of many GPs to provide transgender health services. Just as parents know their children, GPs know their patients. Perhaps more and more of them are seeing young patients who never expressed discomfort with their bodies as children suddenly demanding transgender health services. That would certainly be enough to make a good GP think hard before writing a prescription for cross-sex hormones.