Long-awaited global transgender care guidelines have dropped, with no recommendations regarding age limits for treatment and surgery in teenagers but acknowledging the complexity of dealing with such adolescents amid lack of longitudinal research on the impact of transitioning gender.
The World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) published its latest standards of care (SOC) 8 as it opens its annual meeting today in Montreal.
These are “the most comprehensive set of guidelines ever produced to assist health care professionals around the world in support of transgender and gender diverse adults, adolescents, and children who are taking steps to live their lives authentically,” wrote WPATH President Walter Bouman, MD, PhD, and WPATH President Elect Marci Bowers, MD, in a news release.
The SOC8 is the first update to guidance on the treatment of transgender individuals in 10 years and appears online in the International Journal of Transgender Health.
For the first time, the association wrote a chapter dedicated to transgender and gender-diverse adolescents — distinct from the child chapter.
The Complexity of Treating Adolescents
WPATH officials said that this was owed to exponential growth in adolescent referral rates, more research on adolescent gender diversity–related care, and the unique developmental and care issues of this age group.
Until recently, there was limited information regarding the prevalence of gender diversity among adolescents. Studies from high-school samples indicate much higher rates than was earlier thought, with reports of up to 1.2% of participants identifying as transgender and up to 2.7% or more (eg, 7%-9%) experiencing some level of self-reported gender diversity, WPATH says.
The new chapter “applies to adolescents from the start of puberty until the legal age of majority (in most cases 18 years),” it states.
However, WPATH did not go as far as to recommend lowering the age at which youth can receive cross-sex hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries, as earlier decreed in a draft of the guidelines. That draft suggested that young people could receive hormone therapy at age 14 years and surgeries for double mastectomies at age 15 years and for genital reassignment at age 17 years.
The exception was phalloplasty — surgery to construct a penis in female-to-male individuals — which WPATH stressed should not be performed under the age of 18 years owing to its complexity.
Now, the final SOC8 emphasizes that each transgender adolescent is unique, and decisions must be made on an individual basis, with no recommendations on specific ages for any treatment. This could be interpreted in many ways.
The SOC8 also acknowledges the “very rare” regret of individuals who have transitioned to the opposite gender and then changed their minds.
“[Healthcare] Providers may consider the possibility an adolescent may regret gender-affirming decisions made during adolescence, and a young person will want to stop treatment and return to living in the birth-assigned gender role in the future. Providers may discuss this topic in a collaborative and trusting manner with the adolescent and their parents/caregivers before gender-affirming medical treatments are started,” it states.
WPATH, in addition, stressed the importance of counselling and supporting regretting patients, many who “expressed difficulties finding help during their detransition process and reported their detransition was an isolating experience during which they did not receive either sufficient or appropriate support.”
Although it doesn’t put a firm figure on the rate of regret overall, in its chapter on surgery, WPATH estimates that 0.3%-3.8% of transgender individuals regret gender-affirming surgery.
SOC8 also acknowledges “A pattern of uneven ratios by assigned sex has been reported in gender clinics, with assigned female-at-birth patients initiating care 2.5-7.1 times more frequently” than patients who were assigned male at birth.
And WPATH states in SOC8 that another phenomenon is the growing number of adolescents seeking care who had not previously experienced or expressed gender diversity during their childhood years.
It goes on to cite the 2018 paper of Lisa Littman MD, MPH, now president of the Institute for Comprehensive Gender Dysphoria Research (ICGDR). Littman coined the term, “rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD)” to describe this phenomenon; SOC8 refrains from using this phrase, but does acknowledge, “For a select subgroup of young people, susceptibility to social influence impacting gender may be an important differential to consider.”
SOC8 recommends that before any medical or surgical treatment is considered, healthcare professionals “undertake a comprehensive biopsychosocial assessment of adolescents who present with gender identity-related concerns and seek medical/surgical transition-related care.”
And it specifically mentions that transgender adolescents “show high rates of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)/characteristics,” and notes that “other neurodevelopmental presentations and/or mental health challenges may also be present, (e.g., ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], intellectual disability, and psychotic disorders).”
Who Uses WPATH to Guide Care? This Is ‘a Big Unknown’
WPATH is an umbrella organization with offshoots in most Western nations, such as USPATH in the United States, EPATH in Europe, and AUSPATH and NZPATH in Australia and New Zealand.
However, it is not the only organization to issue guidance on the care of transgender individuals; several specialities take care of this patient population, including, but not limited to: pediatricians, endocrinologists, psychiatrists, psychologists and plastic surgeons.
The extent to which any healthcare professional, or professional body, follows WPATH guidance is extremely varied.
“There is nothing binding clinicians to the SOC, and the SOC is so broad and vague that anyone can say they’re following it but according to their own biases and interpretation,” Aaron Kimberly, a trans man and mental health clinician from the Gender Dysphoria Alliance told Medscape Medical News
In North America, some clinics practice full “informed consent” with no assessment and prescriptions at the first visit, Kimberly said, whereas others do comprehensive assessments.
“I think SOC should be observed. It shouldn’t just be people going rogue,” Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California, former president of USPATH, and former member of WPATH, who is herself transgender, told Medscape Medical News. “The reason there are standards of care is because hundreds of scientists have weighed in — is it perfect? No. We have a long way to go. But you can’t just ignore whatever it is that we know and let people make their own decisions.”
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