Laboratory Medicine for Transgender Patients: An Introduction

Welcome to a new series where I’ll explore the role of lab medicine in the care of transgender patients! Many of you may be asking yourself, “Why should I care? I’m in the lab far separated from these dicey patient care issues.” However, the lab plays important roles as the patient moves through the healthcare setting. Everywhere from name confirmation by phlebotomists and before blood transfusion to sex-specific reference intervals, the lab interacts with the healthcare of transgender patients in important ways. With more transgender patients presenting for clinical management, and more clinicians armed with hormone therapy guidelines created and endorsed by the Endocrine Society, it will be expected for laboratory professionals to know how to manage these patients too.

For me, my first encounter with transgender healthcare through the laboratory was during my clinical chemistry rotation when the lab paged me about a very high estradiol value 10 times higher than the upper limit of normal. I found that the patient was a transgender woman taking excessive hormone doses. Their doctor counseled them and persuaded them to stick with their prescribed dose, because the risks of supraphysiologic estrogen is not known. While we were glad the patient didn’t have an estrogen secreting tumor, I wondered how this hormone therapy may affect other aspects of their health and physiology as reflected by lab values.

After a literature review, I found there were few studies that addressed changes in lab values with hormone therapy. Those papers I found had limited numbers of patients, so I decided to find the answers for myself. Subsequently, I (along with two medical students) studied a large number of patients attending transgender specific clinics.  I’ll discuss our findings as a part of this series.

For now, I’ll go over terminology so everyone can be on the same page. Many of us are likely unfamiliar with the experiences of transgender individuals and don’t realize how what appears to be a verbal misstep can be offensive. The first distinction to make is the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender. Sex is assigned at birth to a child, often based on external anatomy. Gender is the set of behaviors and roles that society or culture assigns to a person that ranges from masculine to feminine. However, gender identity is a deeply held internal sense of whether you consider yourself male, female, both or neither. This is distinct from sexual orientation, which one colleague explains: “orientation is who you go to bed with, gender expression is what you go to bed wearing, and gender is who you go to bed as.” When one’s gender identity is concordant with their sex assigned at birth, they are called cisgender; whereas, discordance between sex assigned at birth and gender identity is termed transgender (I think of cis and trans stereochemistry in organic chemistry). The process of using medical or surgical interventions to transition is referred to as gender-affirming hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgery.

The easiest way to address someone whose preferred name doesn’t match their sex in their record is to address them as they appear: use female pronouns if they are dressed as a woman and male pronouns if they are dressed as a man. And if you’re not comfortable with that, a simple “How would you like to be addressed?” is appreciated. I will go into the importance and challenges of legal sex/name and pronouns in the electronic health record in a later discussion.

To round out the topic of terminology, I’d also like to mention a few terms that should be avoided. “Transgendered” adds an unnecessary “-ed” as transgender is already an adjective. It is further confusing, because it makes the word sound past tense (we wouldn’t say “lesbianed,” for example). Rather, a person undergoes gender transition as they accept and express their gender identity through a set of social, physical, medical or legal changes (sometimes call gender affirmation process). Using terms like pre-op/ post-op/ sex change overly emphasizes the role of surgery in the process, and thus gender transition is more inclusive. Similarly, asking for someone’s “real name” overly emphasizes their legal name and there are limited situations where that would be necessary to use. Derogatory terms include tranny, hermaphrodite, or transvestite and shouldn’t be used even when referring to people who are intersex or wear clothes of the opposite sex.

Thanks for making it all the way through this first post, I look forward to hearing any questions you have and exploring this topic together further!

References

  1. Goldstein Z, Corneil TA, Greene DN. When Gender Identity Doesn’t Equal Sex Recorded at Birth: The Role of the Laboratory in Providing Effective Healthcare to the Transgender Community. Clinical Chemistry 2017; 63(8):1342-1352.
  2. Rosendale N, Goldman S, Ortiz GM et al. Acute Clinical Care of Transgender Patients. JAMA Intern Med. Published online August 27, 2018.
  3. Roberts TK, Kraft CS, French D et al. Interpreting laboratory results in transgender patients on hormone therapy. Am J Med. 2014;127(2):159-62.

SoRelle Picture

-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Molecular Genetic Pathology fellow at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX. His clinical research interests include understanding how the lab intersects with transgender healthcare and advancing quality in molecular diagnostics.

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