When Gender Goes Awry in Electronic Health Records

For most people working in laboratory medicine, their first encounter with transgender patients likely arose from an issue involving the Electronic Health Record (HER). For me, I was called into the reference lab, because an abnormally high estradiol result was found by the referring lab. They were concerned this might be coming from a hormone secreting tumor, but inspection of the patient’s record revealed they had been taking higher than recommended doses of their feminizing hormones.

Today I will share stories from issues that arise in EMR when gender doesn’t equal sex. While these may not specifically happen to all of you, I hope they can be informative or help you anticipate future problems.

Transgender issues came up at one of our institutions when providers were getting dozens of messages in their in-baskets about new flagged lab results for multiple patients. This is very annoying, because they have to address each of these messages or they are out of compliance with the hospital. An investigation revealed that all of the patients involved were transgender patients. In order to get estradiol, sold as oral contraception pills, the pharmacy had to administratively change their sex in the EHR for approval, then change it back.

This moved their corresponding reference ranges out of sync, which triggered a new results flag. Changing the sex back triggered other flags and more messages. This was finally resolved after a committee was convened and several meetings occurred, but no one would have anticipated this type of issue arising from a simple action to get patients their medicine.

Sometimes transgender patients have their sex changed legally. If an EHR only includes one sex entry instead of gender and sex assigned at birth, then certain lab errors may prevent processing of important samples. The pregnancy test for a transgender man could be auto-rejected. This can be an issue even for providers in front of the patient as was recently reported in a case to the NEJM about a transman who was mistaken as obese instead of pregnant and miscarried their child.

Similarly, a prostate biopsy from a transgender woman could be auto-rejected by a surgical pathology system as an inappropriate specimen type for the patient. Even further, an EHR could fail to prompt a provider from making a prostate cancer risk assessment in a transgender woman, which could result in improper screening.

I would recommend that EHR includes three separate fields (sex assigned at birth, gender, and legal sex) to fully recognize transgender patients and provide optimal personalized healthcare to them.

References

  1. Gupta S, Imborek KL, Krasowski MD. Challenges in Transgender Healthcare: The Pathology Perspective. Lab Med. 2016 Aug; 47(3):180-188.
  2.  Stroumsa D, Roberts EFS, Kinnear H, Harris LH. The Power and Limits of Classification – A 32-YearOld Man with Abdominal Pain. N Engl J Med. 2019 May 16;380(20):1885-1888. doi:10.1056/NEJMp1811491.

-Jeff SoRelle, MD is a Chief Resident of Pathology 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 improving genetic variant interpretation.

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