The waiting room is busy; she sits gently pulling at the edge of her new summer dress. It seemed like such a smart buy earlier in the week but now leafing through the shiny guide she received at the new employee orientation she wonders if the bright blue flower pattern and sleeveless cut is a bit too flashy for the office. Next to her is the stack of paperwork which she has dutifully completed, such a joyful task. The clock ticks on, she chews nervously on her pencil. She thinks back to other appointments, ones similar to this, she breathes in and lets out a long sigh. Finally the door opens, the nurse steps out and calls loudly, "David, the doctor will see you now". She stands, a swirl of Azure wilted by a moment of ignorance.
The story of "David", although fictional, is based upon the realistic events of a Transwoman, assigned a male gender at birth, now identifying as a female. Transgender individuals often avoid seeking healthcare related to fear and the potential for discrimination. Nurses are often the first contact that patients make when receiving care so they play a crucial role in developing rapport with their patients and creating welcoming environments.
Transgender is the general term used when referring to people who identify with a different gender than what they were assigned at birth. It really is not possible to get an accurate count on the number of people in the world that are transgender since the statistics are sketchy due to under reporting. With the accomplishments of actress/producer/LGBTQ advocateLaverne Cox as well as the recent outing of Olympic athlete, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, transgender topics have become more acceptable in social media. However the potential for violence and discrimination are still major issues for most patients. It is for this reason that it is not uncommon for patients to limit interactions with providers based upon feelings of anxiety or negative past experiences.
Issues with insurance coverage for medically necessary gender-related care or inappropriate care, reprisal at work related to their gender identity/need for medical procedures, and general access to medical services needed within their communities are frequent worries for patients. Lack of continuity of care and noncompliance with treatment is cause for concern as it relates to such medical disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, HIV, and mental health conditions. In recent studies, transgender patients were found 9 times more likely to have attempted suicide than the average person. Social risks such homelessness and lack of support systems were known to be high stressors. Refusal of care by medical providers and discrimination were also key factors for suicide risk.
Transgender patients should be able to access healthcare without fear or ridicule. Barriers to care exist in all environments and need to be broken efficiently. It is extremely important to educate yourself and others within your workplace in an effort to create safe, inclusive, patient centered care facilities. Increased awareness of barriers that patients may have already encountered prior to our visit allows us to appreciate the potential for underlying apprehension and frustration they may be experiencing. Nursing staff may also have feelings of nervousness stemming from a lack of knowledge regarding Transgender patients. Our own approach and demeanor can allow us to better anticipate the needs of the patient to improve overall outcomes.
What can nurses do to reduce stigma and make their workplaces more sensitive to the LGBTQ/transgender community? Focus on making sure that you are properly educated and share your knowledge with your colleagues. Be sure to use transgender affirmative and inclusive language. Ask patients their preference for word choice, especially when using names, pronouns, and other words to describe their body. It is important to ensure that environments are welcoming to the LGBTQ/transgender community. This can be accomplished through the display of LGBTQ acceptance signage as well as educational materials in the waiting room. Lastly, never assume! Whether it is the gender of a person, sexual orientation, or the answer to another health related question, nurses cannot avoid asking the questions necessary to properly assess and care for patients even if they are embarrassing or difficult. Remembering to incorporate sensitivity from the beginning of our assessment all the way through care delivery is a must! Respecting the individual needs of our patients and advocating for quality care has always been the nurse's forte. Ensuring that we do all that we can for the transgender population to receive the healthcare services that they deserve should be no different.
Jessica S. Quigley RN, DNP