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.

The Paperwork of Transgender Care

I don’t think anyone enjoys filling out the paperwork at a doctor’s office. For transgender individuals, this can be an experience that ranges from irksome to offensive. Most intake forms don’t allow for expression of their gender identity. Furthermore, confusion on gender and sex can create real confusion and healthcare failures in several places that laboratory medicine encounters a transgender individual.

Arguably the first place the lab encounters a transgender patient is via the phlebotomist. These professional collectors of blood must confirm two patient identifiers, which are often name and date of birth. The “name” used is the legal name. Using a transgender person’s “dead name” (name given at birth) represents a gender they do not want to be associated with and can be a very offensive experience. “Isn’t it obvious that name is not what I look like?”

While names can be legally changed, this happens with varying difficulty and legal cost in different states. A solution is to improve training of phlebotomists to explain the necessity of confirming a legal name so lab results are properly matched to the patient. Additionally, front-desk intake workers should be similarly trained to interact with transgender patients when recording demographic information. This can be aided by electronic health records (EHR) becoming more flexible and inclusive of the gender diversity.

Traditionally, EHR would only include one field for SEX: M or F.

Several in the laboratory community have asked how many different gender options should be included? Facebook included up to 71 options in 2017. That’s a big step up from the 2 traditional EHRs are built around.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) executive committee in 2011 outlined the recommended fields to include in EHR: preferred name, sex assigned at birth, gender, and pronoun preference. EHRs are evolving and can be flexible depending on the user requirements. At my program, we use EPIC at 3 different different sites (children’s, county and university hospitals) and each has a different version.

From what I’ve seen preferred name is an easy addition and would not interfere with functions of the EHR or Laboratory Information Systems (LIS), which is the Lab’s version of EHR.

If the field for sex assigned at birth is different from gender, then it would clear up any confusion about whether the person is transgender and then they should be addressed by the pronouns matching the gender. While there is a spectrum of genders, only transgender males and transgender females are of a high enough prevalence to have medically relevant recommendations. Plus, if a system at least starts here, they could expand further as necessitated by their population.

EHR could include preferred pronouns, but I haven’t seen this implemented in an EHR yet. Ideally, you would just use the pronouns that match the intended appearance of the individual (ma’am to someone wearing a dress, etc.).

Lastly, I think Legal sex should be added to the EHR as well. One of our hospitals has this and it makes several processes easier such as processing hormone medication.

Legal (or administrative) sex, sex assigned at birth, and gender data fields provide the clearest and simplest picture of a patient and should be a minimum for labs making recommendations for changes to HER.

Next month I will describe in greater detail the issues that can arise in the lab when gender or sex are entered incorrectly in the system for transgender patients and how this can negatively affect care delivery.

References

  1. Deutsch MB, Green J, Keatley J, Mayer G, Hastings J, Hall AM, World Professional Association for Transgender Health EMR Working Group. Electronic medical records and the transgender patient: recommendations from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health EMR Working Group. J Am Med Inform Assoc. 2013 Jul-Aug; 20(4):700-3.
  2. Gupta S, Imborek KL, Krasowski MD. Challenges in Transgender Healthcare: The Pathology Perspective. Lab Med. 2016 Aug; 47(3):180-188.

-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.