Comment: It’s time for the media to change the record on trans healthcare
In a comment piece for PinkNews, Sarah Brown says the media needs to make substantial improvements in the way it covers health stories involving the trans community.
Transgender healthcare is in the news again. It’s been widely known amongst trans people for some time, but on the 6th of January, Guardian journalist David Batty reported that the General Medical Council is investigating private trans healthcare specialist, Dr Richard Curtis. In his article, Batty paints a picture of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.
Those of us who follow this stuff might be forgiven for experiencing a sense of deja-vu. Dr Curtis took over the private practice of Russell Reid from 2005. In 2007, Dr Reid faced a General Medical council fitness to practice hearing which was reported on by no other than Guardian journalist, David Batty. In his reports, Batty spoke of misdiagnosis, patient regret, and inappropriate prescribing.
It’s entirely proper for the GMC to investigate allegations of misconduct, and for the press to report on it, but it’s difficult for trans people not to notice how terribly one-sided it all seems to be. The doctors who seem to end up in front of the GMC seem to be those ones who are generally well regarded by trans people, and who have a reputation for helping us when nobody else will.
Press reports concentrate on regrets about procedures which have satisfaction levels beyond the dreams of most other fields of medicine, where much larger regret rates are regarded as par for the course. They rigidly stick to a narrative about a dangerous procedure which gullible people are tricked into by reckless doctors and end up bitterly regretting.
The reality experienced by trans people ourselves is not recognisable from the press reports. In reality large numbers of us are used to being ignored, abused and ridiculed by doctors when we seek treatment. We are denied referrals, denied funding, denied prescriptions and humiliated by a medical establishment which many experience as institutionally transphobic.
Batty’s recent article prompted me to take to Twitter to highlight the hypocrisy of the media in how they report trans healthcare. I wrote:
“I had a misdiagnosis which led to surgery I regret, and which has caused long term problems.
Here press press press! I, a trans person, had surgery due to misdiagnosis and I regret it. Come and get it, you know you want to.
The scarring will never fade. My mutilated appendage will never be fully functional again. It’s all true. Nice and juicy! Come and get it!
I was offered surgery after only two appointments with the specialist.”
Less than five minutes later, and despite my painfully obvious trolling, the phone rang. It was a newspaper noticing that I’d spoken about surgical regret and could I elaborate? They lost interest when I said it was all true, but I was talking about surgery I had on my right hand in 2011. I apologised for wasting their time.
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The misdiagnosis which led to me having surgery on my hand when I shouldn’t have done, and which made the existing problem worse, won’t ever be the subject of a GMC fitness to practice hearing, nor would I want it to be. There’s nobody at fault for what happened; it’s just one of those things which falls within the limitations of modern medicine. I may ultimately lose one or more fingers because of it, but these things happen and I am simply unlucky.
But I could not have wished for a more perfect example of the double standards at work here. Prompted by this, a few trans people started sharing stories of how they had been mistreated by their doctors with me. The next morning, I made a Twitter hashtag, #TransDocFail, to share stories about mistreatment and prejudice at the hands of the medical community. I expected a few dozen. Later that day I stopped counting at 2,000 and several days later, it’s still receiving new reports. Lots of the descriptions are harrowing: people being called “abominations” by their doctors, people bleeding to death being refused treatment by A&E departments, vast numbers of GPs telling people to pull themselves together, or “sacking” them as patients, sexual assault by unnecessary and repeated genital examinations, and so on.
The reports went on and on. Trans people watched it with sadness and resignation. Non trans people stared, open mouthed, barely comprehending how the healthcare system can treat people like this with barely a whisper in the national media. If this was happening in any other area of medicine it would be a national scandal, comparable in magnitude to the Savile affair, staying in the headlines for months and prompting widespread investigations.
I’m thrilled because I managed to speak about it for 5 minutes on local radio.
The media needs to end its transphobic obsession with transition regretters, because this wilful tunnel vision is blinding it to routine and systemic abuse of transgender people when we try to access health services. The LGBT movement wouldn’t tolerate it if the bulk of LGB coverage in the press was about loud and proud ex-gays. We shouldn’t tolerate this either.
Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Cambridge.