Caring for Transgender Patients
Treating patients with dignity and respect is one of the core tenets of healthcare. This is true regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Yet even when a healthcare professional wants to create a safe and respectful space for transgender patients, if they’ve never met or had the opportunity to treat one, they may not have a full understanding of how to best create that space. Ultimately, as always, it is all about respecting the patient’s wishes.
Start with the Golden Rule
Treat all patients as you would want to be treated and keep the focus on their care.
Don’t make assumptions about the identity, sexual orientation, or beliefs of your transgender patient. If you are confused about an individual’s gender identity, politely ask, “What name would you like me to use?” or “What pronouns do you prefer?”
Do not ask about whether a transgender patient has had surgery to change their genitals unless it is related their care and don’t ask intrusive questions out of personal curiosity. As you would with any patient, protect a patient’s dignity by keeping their genitals covered as you provide treatment or assist in bathing. Similarly, do not disclose a person’s transgender status to anyone who does not need this information to provide care.
Some Key Terms to Understand
One way to show respect for an individual is using the words they prefer when speaking to and about them. Here are just a few common terms:
Transgender – This term refers to individual who identifies or expresses their gender differently from their assigned sex at birth. These individuals may or may not elect to have surgery or hormone treatments to alter their body.
Gender Identity – This is how an individual perceives their gender. This deeply personal connection may or may not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth or how they present themselves to the world.
Gender Expression – The external presentation of an individual’s gender identity. This can be expressed through clothing, hairstyles, grooming, accessories, social interactions, and speech patterns. Individuals who express their gender in neither masculine nor feminine stereotypes or who differ from the expected stereotypes are sometimes referred to as gender non-conforming.
Transition – This is a process individuals go through to change their physical appearance through hormones, surgery, and/or gender expression to align with their gender identity. Some transgender individuals prefer the term gender affirmation to reflect that they have accepted their true gender identity, rather than changing it.
Pronouns – More than a figure of speech, gender pronouns are an important part of how we respect gender identity. Common pronouns are she/her/hers and he/him/his. Some individuals prefer the gender neutral pronouns they/them/theirs. While it can feel uncomfortable to ask about pronouns at first, it can be a bridge to building trust as transgender individuals will appreciate that you are making an effort to respect their gender identity.
What if you use the wrong term?
Sometimes even when someone has the best of intentions, they may accidentally slip up and misuse a term or refer to an individual with the wrong pronoun. If this happens, apologize right away and correct yourself: “I’m sorry, I meant ____.”
Don’t make the situation more awkward for your patient by over-apologizing or explaining in detail why it happened or how badly you feel. If you overhear another care provider using the wrong pronoun, take them aside and privately let them know what pronouns the patient prefers.
Treat All Patients with Respect
All patients deserve access to quality healthcare and personal respect. Transgender patients often avoid medical care because they fear judgement and discrimination.
By treating all patients with respect including protecting their personal dignity and using their preferred pronouns, you create a safe and supportive environment to provide the level of care every patient deserves.
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