Success in LGBTQ+ Medicine Requires Awareness of Risk

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Primary care for LGBTQ+ patients should focus on early identification and management of unique health risks, according to a leading expert.

Patients who are transgender, for instance, are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population (2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS). Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. 2019 May 22. doi: 10.3886/ICPSR37229.v1), and those who are also Black have an estimated HIV prevalence of 62%, demonstrating the cumulative, negative health effects of intersectionality (www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/transgender/hiv-prevalence.html).

“Experiences with marginalization and stigma directly relate to some of the poor physical and mental health outcomes that these patients experience,” Megan McNamara, MD, said during a presentation at the American College of Physicians annual Internal Medicine meeting.

McNamara, who is director of the Gender Identity Veteran’s Experience (GIVE) Clinic, Veterans Affairs Northeast Ohio Healthcare System, Cleveland, offered a brief guide to managing LGBTQ+ patients. She emphasized increased rates of psychological distress and substance abuse, and encouraged familiarity with specific risks associated with three subgroups: men who have sex with men (MSM), women who have sex with women (WSW), and those who are transgender.

Men Who Have Sex With Men

According to McNamara, preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) should be offered based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eligibility criteria, which require that the patient is HIV negative, has had a male sex partner in the past 6 months, is not in a monogamous relationship, and has had anal sex or a bacterial sexually transmitted infection in the past 6 months. The two PrEP options, emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate and emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide, are equally effective and have similar safety profiles, McNamara said, but patients with impaired renal function should receive the alafenamide formulation.

McNamara also advised screening gay men for extragenital STIs, noting a 13.3% increased risk. When asked about anal Pap testing for HPV, McNamara called the subject “very controversial,” and ultimately recommended against it, citing a lack of data linking anal HPV infection and dysplasia with later development of rectal carcinoma, as well as the nonactionable impact of a positive result.

“For me, the issue is…if [a positive anal Pap test] is not going to change my management, if I don’t know that the anal HPV that I diagnose will result in cancer, should I continue to monitor it?” McNamara said.

Women Who Have Sex With Women

Beyond higher rates of psychological distress and substance abuse among lesbian and bisexual women, McNamara described increased risks of overweight and obesity, higher rates of smoking, and lower rates of Pap testing, all of which should prompt clinicians to advise accordingly, with cervical cancer screening in alignment with guidelines. Clinicians should also discuss HPV vaccination with patients, taking care to weigh benefits and risks, as “catch-up” HPV vaccination is not unilaterally recommended for adults older than 26 years.

Transgender Patients

Discussing transgender patients, McNamara focused on cross-sex hormone therapy (CSHT), first noting the significant psychological benefits, including improvements in depression, somatization, interpersonal sensitivity, hostility, anxiety, phobic anxiety/agoraphobia, and quality of life.

According to McNamara, CSHT is relatively simple and may be safely administered by primary care providers. For transmasculine patients, testosterone supplementation is all that is needed, whereas transfeminine patients will require spironolactone or GnRH agonists to reduce testosterone and estradiol to increase feminizing hormones to pubertal levels.

CSHT is not without risks, McNamara said, including “very high” risks of erythrocytosis among transmasculine patients and venous thromboembolic disease among transfeminine patients; but these risks need to be considered in the context of an approximate 40% suicide rate among transgender individuals.

“I can tell you in my own practice that these [suicide] data ring true,” McNamara said. “Many, many of my patients have attempted suicide, so [CSHT] is something that you really want to think about right away.”

Even when additional risk factors are present, such as preexisting cardiovascular disease, McNamara suggested that “there are very few absolute contraindications to CSHT,” and described it as a “life-sustaining treatment” that should be viewed analogously with any other long-term management strategy, such as therapy for diabetes or hypertension.

Fostering a Transgender-Friendly Practice

In an interview, Nicole Nisly, MD, codirector of the LGBTQ+ Clinic at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Iowa City, reflected upon McNamara’s presentation, noting that primary care providers — with a little education — are the best candidates to care for transgender patients.

“I think [primary care providers] do a better job [caring for transgender patients] than endocrinologists, honestly, because they can provide care for the whole person,” Nisly said. “They can do a Pap, they can do STI screening, they can assess mood, they can [evaluate] safety, and the whole person, as opposed to endocrinologists, who do hormone therapy, but somebody else does everything else.”

Nisly emphasized the importance of personalizing care for transgender individuals, which depends upon a welcoming practice environment, with careful attention to language.

Foremost, Nisly recommended asking patients for their preferred name, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

“One of the most difficult things [for transgender patients] is to see notes with the wrong name — the name that makes them feel uncomfortable — or the wrong pronoun,” Nisly said. “That’s very important to the community.”

Nisly also recommended an alternative term for cross-sex hormone therapy.

“I hate cross-sex hormone therapy terminology, honestly,” Nisly said. “I just think it’s so unwelcoming, and I think most of our patients don’t like the terminology, so we use ‘gender-affirming hormone therapy.'”

Nisly explained that the term “cross-sex” assumes a conventional definition of sex, which is inherently flawed.

When discussing certain medical risk factors, such as pregnancy or HIV, it is helpful to know “sex assigned at birth” for both patients and their sexual partners, Nisly said. It’s best to ask in this way, instead of using terms like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” as “sex assigned at birth” is “terminology the community recognizes, affirms, and feels comfortable with.”

Concerning management of medical risk factors, Nisly offered some additional perspectives.

For one, she recommended giving PrEP to any patient who has a desire to be on PrEP, noting that this desire can indicate a change in future sexual practices, which the CDC criteria do not anticipate. She also advised in-hospital self-swabbing for extragenital STIs, as this can increase patient comfort and adherence. And, in contrast with McNamara, Nisly recommended anal Pap screening for any man that has sex with men and anyone with HIV of any gender. She noted that rates of anal dysplasia are “pretty high” among men who have sex with men, and that detection may reduce cancer risk.

For clinicians who would like to learn more about caring for transgender patients, Nisly recommended that they start by reading the World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines.

“It’s about 300 pages,” Nisly said, “but it is great.”

McNamara and Nisly reported no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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