Science & Research

Conference educates about trans* health care

Doctors, patients engage in seminars discussing sensitive treatment for trans* patients

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2016

Rhode Island College hosted the 2016 Trans* Health Conference Jan. 30, offering presentations throughout the day to over 350 physicians, nurses, mental health care providers, medical students and trans* attendees.

Within the doctor’s office and in greater society, people who are trans* — a term that encompasses people who identify as transgender, transsexual, non-binary, agender and other identities — are sometimes perceived as “zoo animals,” said Dr. Scout, who delivered the keynote address. As the director of LGBT HealthLink at CenterLink, he oversees more than 180 LGBTQ community centers. Often, the largest issues arise for trans* people before they enter the health care system, he added.

He spoke about the state of trans* health care in Rhode Island and around the country, covering topics including suicide hotline protocols, gendered bathroom policies and the understanding and treatment of the trans* population.

“We know that stigma and discrimination take a really active toll on your health, and so (does) the level of social exclusion,” Scout told The Herald.

The suicide rate within the trans* community is especially high — more than half of transgender youths will attempt suicide before age 20, according to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

Early on in their lives, many trans* people face a “live-or-die scenario,” Scout added.

Doctor visits can be a particularly stressful experience for trans* people — if they can even find a local doctor welcoming trans* patients. “Most of us literally have to educate our doctors around trans* care,” Scout told The Herald.

The conference followed the creation of a Trans* Health Access Team in 2015 at Rhode Island’s Thundermist Health Center that doubled the number of trans* health care providers in the state, said Jayeson Watts, manager of the program.

This year’s event, the second annual trans* health conference, featured three tracks for participants: one for medical providers, one for mental health providers and one for community members.

Medical providers attended presentations like “Legal Transitions and Advocacy” and “Gender Expressive Youth,” among other seminars which taught sensitive treatment of trans* patients.

The conference aimed to “improve the health and well-being of transgender folks by increasing capacity on the mental health and health care level,” said Fadya El Rayess, assistant professor of family medicine and member of the planning committee for the conference. “What we hope is that by having many providers become comfortable taking care of transgender people, it would just be a routine part of primary care,” she added.

“Having learned a little bit more about gender care helped me take care of everybody,” said Michelle Forcier, associate professor of pediatrics. “It’s our ethical obligation to make sure kids know they can get help and support.”

Doctors, like many members of the public, may not be aware of the number of trans* people around them. “We all know people who are trans, they just may not be identifying themselves to us,” said Tim Cavanaugh, medical director of the transgender health program at Fenway Health.

In the Mental Health Providers track, which was newly differentiated from the medical track in this year’s conference, presenters offered seminars discussing clinical skills and how to address their patients’ hormonal changes. Mental health providers made up the majority of attendants at the conference, said El Rayess. “There are lots of mental health providers who want to get that training,” she added.

Community members heard from speakers about topics including social identities, intersectionality, communication and legal aspects of health care. This part of the conference featured trans* speakers — rather than professionals — in order to provide a “transgender-friendly and safe space,” El Rayess said.

“We need to start teaching about this much earlier,” said Alexis Drutchas, a physician at Fenway Health, who started the conference during her residency. “We can learn pretty quickly and do the right thing for all of our patients.”

The conference has increased in size since last year, and the organizers recognize the need to continue expanding and offering the program annually, she added.

The conference enables health care providers not only to reconsider how they treat their patients, but also about “the systems around them and how those need to change,” Scout told The Herald.

“We rely on the goodwill of allies standing up to say ‘this needs to change,’” Scout said. “Trans* people alone — there’s not enough of us. We’re too busy surviving to create the change, so it’s the allies in this life — the ones in this room — who will change our world for us.”