New transgender-specific MCV educational health program will be among first of its kind
VCU’s Medical College of Virginia campus is primed to join a select few universities in providing a course specifically covering transgender health issues.
Introduction to Transgender Medicine, a new elective being offered during the fall 2015 semester, will cover a range of transgender specific issues. It is the brain child of one of VCU’s leading transgender voices, Dr. Tarynn Witten, and one of her former students, Courtney Saw.
Saw, a fourth year medical student at MCV, first started working with Witten on the program about three years ago.
Saw was president of the MCV Health Collective during her second year of school, which put her in charge of organizing a series of lunch lectures on varying topics for fellow students. She would often call on Dr. Witten to come and speak about LGBTQ health issues as her lectures proved to be some of the best attended.
“We were trying to promote medical student education on this topic,” said Saw. “And we had more students than we could handle coming to these lectures.”
Before long, Witten and Saw began hammering out details on what a trans-health focused class would look like.
“There are ethical issues and medical issues and physiological issues… there’s a variety of things that a physician has to know about,” Witten said. “There are a variety of things that doctors have to know that are both similar too, and different from, what we’ll call non-gender conforming individuals.”
But Witten admitted the class was just an intro to the much more specific study of transgender health.
“This medical class is just like a buffet, but they’ll be more savvy about where to go next.”
Witten, herself a male-to-female transexual, was not surprised to know this kind of program hadn’t existed before, but she also knew times were changing.
“You’ve got bruce Jenner on the TV now,” said Witten. “There is a vocal transgender population that spans all populations and ages… they all have healthcare needs, and they are all different.”
Saw, who identifies as an ally, said she had long been committed to advocating for LGBTQs, and she saw this class as a chance to continue supporting the community. But biggest challenge was developing the course curriculum. In her research, Saw had trouble finding case studies which specifically dealt with transgender individuals.
“A lot of the cases they have that involve the LGBT population are mainly about sexual orientation,” she said. “Even some of the sample cases I’ve found, the fact that the patient is transgender is something that evolved throughout the case but ultimately is not relevant to the medical diagnosis and treatment of the patient.”
This disconnect is one of the reasons Saw believes her and Dr. Witten’s program is so important.
“The fact that the patient is transgender can have medical consequences and [that's] something that our students will need to be aware of,” Witten said.
Of course non of this could have gotten this far without support from MCV’s administration, and that’s where Dr. Mark Ryan came in.
Saw identified him as pivotal throughout the process of turning her transgender medical program into a reality.
“It was seen as something that filled a gap in the medical education program,” said Ryan. “Witten and Saw had done plenty of work before making the proposal… when the feedback came in front of the committee, it was very positive. There was no [debate] about the validity of the program.”
Ryan, an Assistant Professor in VCU’s Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, has been practicing medicine for about 12 years. He’s also the chair of MCV’s Clinical Subcommittee of the Curriculum Council, one of the groups which oversees curriculum for the school’s medical education program.
In the work he’s overseen and been a part of, Ryan was acutely aware of the health-related issues faced by members of the transgender community, admitting he hadn’t worked with trans folks outside of general medical care because he lacked the training to help them with trans-specific care.
This is why he thinks Saw and Witten’s program is so compelling.
“If you have students who take even this one-month elective, and they’ll be working in communities where trans people might be, which is really anywhere, then having at least some exposure to it in medical school means you’ll walk into your practice that much more comfortable, at the very least, with some of the language and conversation around these treatments,” said Ryan.
Ryan said he’s noticed changes in the medical community around LGBT health issues, and he’s not surprised a program like this is being created now, but if you had asked him about this program 15 years ago when he first got into medicine, his reaction might not be the same.
“It didn’t seem like it was publicly discussed very much,” he said. “Virginia had just passed the ban on gay marriage, so if you were someone who was transgender, you probably struggled even more to find someone who was a point of contact.”
With this class being the first of its kind offered at MCV, all those involved are excited to see how it will be received, and even more hopeful that it becomes part of the school’s regular program.
“If students do take it… I can see there being an opportunity to share this model broadly,” said Ryan who stressed the creation of this class was less about serving specific members of specific communities, and more about creating a more rounded education for those in the MCV education program.
“We had a natural opportunity to enhance that teaching and training, not as a mission statement in the LGBTQ health area specifically,” he said. “But in the mission of wanting to train good physicians to do good work with any patient they take care of.”
Editors note: Since publishing this story, it’s been brought to our attention a transgender-specific health program exists at Boston University School of Medicine, making MCV’s program not the first of its kind. The content in this article has been updated to reflect that change.
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