5 Filters

Why transgender people are ignored by modern medicine

Continuing the discussion from Judith Butler on feminism, gender and trans rights:

AF : What do you think would break this impasse in feminism over trans rights? What would lead to a more constructive debate?

JB : I suppose a debate, were it possible, would have to reconsider the ways in which the medical determination of sex functions in relation to the lived and historical reality of gender.

On just one aspect of that subject, the article below is surpisingly sensible, level-headed, informative, and practical. The problems it addresses are, of course, in the words of John Cleese, “bleedin’ obvious”, but I must admit I hadn’t given much thought to this aspect of things. (I have only ever contemplated hormone treatment and surgery from a nervous distance, so their aftermath has remained rather hazy.)

By Zaria Gorvett 17th August 2020


Whitley is a transgender man – he identifies as male but his biological sex is female. He has been living as a man for around 20 years. In his words, he fully “passes” as one, for want of a better term – and he is registered as a man on all his legal documents, from his passport to his medical records.

But most healthcare has evolved with a straightforward dichotomy of gender in mind. Though there are thought to be nearly a million transgender people living in the US (this is a rough estimate as this data isn’t collected) there’s concern that this group is being largely ignored by health services and the medical industry.

Rather than devising new ways to cope with changing social norms, transgender people are often shoehorned into inappropriate boxes instead.

In Whitley’s case, the problem was how the severity of kidney disease is assessed. The usual protocol is to calculate a patient’s “estimated glomerular filtration rate” (eGFR), which measures the amount of a certain waste product in their blood and therefore shows how efficient their kidneys are at filtering it out. If the eGFR is below a certain level, it’s an indication that their kidneys are failing and they are eligible for a transplant.

There are several different lower limits for an eGFR, depending on things like a person’s weight, age, gender and race, which are intended to reflect the natural variation in the human body. Based on the female cut-off, he would have been allowed a transplant immediately. But he’s registered as a man on his medical records, and this meant his doctors used the male eGFR level. He wasn’t put on the list until he reached it – a decision that ultimately delayed the surgery by over a year, and very nearly cost him his life.

“It was really cute and awesome that I was treated as male, but in being this way, they didn’t necessarily take into account the body,” says Whitley, who points out that, though he has been taking testosterone for around 15 years, it’s a relatively small dose. “I was born female and I identify as male – they should have probably have set my limit as somewhere in the middle.”

Even Whitley’s dialysis was complicated by the current lack of knowledge about transgender medicine – the calculation that’s used to work out how regularly it needs to be done is based on another sex-specific assumption.

Whitley’s experiences are just the tip of the iceberg.

When you factor in the large data gaps in everything from the average life expectancy of transgender people to the right dosages of medications for their bodies, along with the widespread lack of knowledge among doctors about how to address them – let alone treat them – and the high chance of them being refused treatment outright, it soon becomes clear that transgender medicine is in crisis. Few groups experience such significant barriers to healthcare, and yet their struggles are going largely unnoticed.

In some cases, the issues are baked right into the heart of our medical systems.

Consider this: if you were to look through every single medical record in the UK – all 55 million – you won’t find a single record labelled as belonging to a transgender person. This is also true for those assembled by many providers in the US.

“You can register as male or female, but you can still only choose between these two options – you can’t say if you are transgender or non-binary,” explains Kamilla Kamaruddin, a doctor who works for the National Health Service (NHS) and transgender woman. “So that’s quite difficult.”

Instead doctors must rely on their patient to tell them.

“Sometimes this can be okay,” says Dina Greene, a clinical chemist and expert in transgender health at the University of Washington, Seattle. In many cases, if someone is going to see a medical expert where gender seems irrelevant, patients might not want their doctor to know they are transgender, she says. "It’s stigmatised.”

But this rigid male-female dichotomy also has some bizarre, and much less desirable, implications. “There are lots of simple things, like our medical record systems often cancel pregnancy tests if they’re ordered on men,” says Greene. (Some transgender men can get pregnant, depending on the treatment they have had. And though very few countries track this aspect of their health, 250 gave birth in Australia in the decade leading up to 2019).

The gender you’re registered as also dictates which screening tests you are invited to, meaning that thousands of transgender men could be missing out on potentially life-saving cervical (Pap) smears and breast exams, while transgender women could be missing out on abdominal aortic aneurism check-ups (or prostate cancer screenings, if they live in the US).

When Charlie Manzano, a transgender man from Martinez, California, informed his healthcare provider that he would like to register as male, he was told that he would lose his gynaecologist – though he still retained his female reproductive organs. “Most of my doctors have no idea about trans patients,” he says.

Similarly, your gender shapes a number of other medical decisions, such as the dose of drugs you’re prescribed. For those whose gender and sex are the same, this makes sense, because male and female biology is fundamentally different – the former have more water in the body, a higher surface area, and a higher body mass. All of these factors can influence the way pharmaceuticals behave. Females also have more sites for certain drugs to bind to, and are therefore more sensitive to them. They tend to clear them more slowly, so they are more susceptible to overdoses.

Doctors already factor in the importance of tweaking the standard female dosages for pregnant women, who have a higher body weight and are simmering in a cocktail of hormones that change certain aspects of their biology. However, no such considerations are routinely made for transgender people, who, as a result of surgery or hormonal therapies, are known not to respond to certain drugs in the same way.

This is all layered on top of some alarming statistics about transgender health. The group has higher rates of heart disease, certain cancers, mental health problems, suicide, smoking, and substance abuse than the general population – as well as an HIV prevalence which is up to 42 times the national average. Transgender people are not only more likely to get sick, but less likely to seek treatment when they do.


Even when doctors are well-informed, it can still be difficult for transgender people to access certain potentially life-saving interventions because of the systems that are in place.

“In the UK, people are invited for cancer screenings based on whatever gender they’re registered as in their medical records,” says Alison Berner, an oncologist and part-time gender identity specialist.

This means that transgender men won’t be asked to attend screenings for breast and cervical cancer, but they will be invited to have the least useful check-up, the one for abdominal aortic aneurysms (AAA). In the UK, patients registered as male are currently invited for these, which involve checking for a bulge in the major artery that runs from a person’s chest to their abdomen; if it’s swollen, it might eventually burst and lead to a medical emergency. It’s extremely rare unless your biological sex is male.

Equally, transgender women who register as female will be summoned for breast and cervical screenings, but they won’t be asked to attend AAA exams. The former is often appropriate, because if they are taking female hormones they will be at a slightly higher risk of breast cancer – but of course this group do not have cervixes, and they could be missing out on important pre-emptive treatments if their AAAs go unnoticed.

If transgender patients don’t attend these inappropriate appointments, the reminders will just keep coming – often becoming increasingly urgent. Kamaruddin recalls an incident which some people might have found upsetting. “I kept receiving letters, so eventually I had to call up and tell them look, I don’t need this. It was the only way to do it,” she says.

The official guidance is that a person’s doctor should make sure that their record “facilitates screening for physiologically appropriate risks”, but there is no easy way to do so, other than adding a comment in their medical notes, which could be easily missed.

Kamaruddin says she keeps a list of her own transgender patients and trains her nurses about the cancer and sexual health screenings they need. They have to contact the relevant hospitals and get them appointments manually. But not only is this inefficient – it’s also unreliable. Only some medical practices keep such lists, and when they do, they depend on patients disclosing their status to their doctor voluntarily – otherwise there is no way of knowing.

Naturally, some patients choose to keep information about their biological sex to themselves. They don’t always realise it’s still relevant after their gender transition. “A lot of transgender men don’t know they need to have cervical screenings,” says Kamaruddin.

For those who identify as non-binary, the situation is even murkier. Roman Ruddick, from California, says the system has no idea what to do with them. “One month they were like, ‘just so you know, you should get your prostate checked’ and I was really thrown off and then the next month I got, ‘you should go get a pap smear’ and I found out that they were just sending me everything.”

1 Like

What a complicated and Kafkaesque situation to find oneself in.

I have wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to normalise “trans-woman/trans-man” as additional genders. I think this whenever I see debates along the lines of. “trans-women ARE women”. It leads to very binary thinking, that in the long run might be harmful for all of us, trans people included, leading to exactly the strange shoe-horning described in the article. Would it not better for us to acknowledge that trans-women are trans-women? A category that has some similar and some different concerns to cis-women?

The downside, of course, is that a prefix of “trans” makes it much easier for people to discriminate…

No easy answers, I guess.

I would add that, on discovering that my mother might have had a heart attack, almost undetected, women’s symptoms are also quite often unrecorded or unacknowledged. Heart attack symptoms in women can be very different to those in men, and yet it’s the man’s symptoms that are most well known and checked for.

It’s almost at if there is a dominant group of people at the top of the social hierarchy who dismiss and generally ignore those who don’t fit into their group…

Ever noticed that?


Cheers for the article

I seem to have had one of those barely-noticed heart-attacks, in Turkey in 1997. Only discovered by a heart specialist years later, from an ECG that he took!! He was able to pinpoint the precise year and even the time of year of the incident. I remembered it only as an attack of unusual weariness, which I dealt with simply by sleeping for twelve hours straight.

Concerning the main issue of this post: two more categories such as you suggest, P, could well be the best way to avoid the over-simplifying binary thinking that seems to be our default assumption. Trans people whom I’ve known make it entirely clear to me that it’s a real thing, with heavy - indeed crucial - personal significance to them; and one which brings them a whole lot of entirely gratuitous, wholly unnecessary distress, laid on otherwise excellent souls, considering those I’ve known personally, by a mis-perceiving society.

Oddly, I suspect that there may be sub-categories within the trans designation. Thinking of two trans people whom I knew at an asylum facility for mentally handicapped men where I worked in the '70s: One a patient, the other a nursing assistant.

When we bathed ‘Gertie’ - the patient - it was clear from his/her physical shaping that s/he was morphologically trans: breasts present, but also genitals which did a perfect demo of how clitoris and labia majora are clearly analogues of penis and scrotal sac, and how one fades into the other, according to where ‘male’ fades into ‘female’. ‘Gertie’ sat exactly in the middle of the spectrum, morphologically. S/he was so called because s/he was such a chattery old biddie, like the ladies of the sewing room, with whom s/he like to socialise as they worked.

Then there was ‘Judy’ B: a strapping, wholly male-form nursing assistant, who was nevertheless sure of her/his feminine identity, and acted it out completely in her/his spare-time life - but who was obliged by the stiff-necked medical authorities of the time to dress and identify as a man when at work! Cruel!

These two, plus a darling playwright friend of mine whom I knew as a man, husband, and father to two daughters, who nevertheless now lives permanently as a woman, all convinced me that trans is a real thing, which deserves to be treated with respect and - above all - compassion. People shouldn’t have to struggle their whole lives under a gratuitous stigma which blights their lives. Several other close trans friends of mine also emphasise this thought. They too have had a lot of hassle because of it.

Interestingly, though, several fully-female friends of mine who also know these trans people question whether they should assume/pretend to be fully in the female category, when my female friends see plainly by many small tells that they’re something other. Extra categories, generally accepted by an enlightened society, seems like a good idea.