Expanding limited resources for transgender healthcare

(From L-R) Tania Villa,  Justine Woolner-Wise, Carolyn Wolf-Gould, Christopher Wolf-Gould, Diane Georgeson.

One of the hardest parts about transitioning to life as a transgender person is the difficulty in finding sufficient healthcare to assist with any complications that may arise. Often, access to that type of care is restricted to big cities, such as the massive Center of Excellence for Transgender Health in San Francisco.

That may soon be changing for upstate New York. A recent grant awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Program to five practitioners from The Gender Wellness Center at A.O. Fox Hospital in Oneonta will go toward founding the new Clinical Scholars Program, a program designed to foster networks addressing the health inequities faced by the transgender population in our medical system.

The grant is worth $500,000 over the next three years and will support a group consisting of Dr. Carolyn Wolf-Gould, Dr. Christopher Gould, Dr. Diane Georgeson, physician assistant Tania Villa, of Ithaca, and Justine Woolner-Wise, a licensed medical social worker, in their work.

Despite increased awareness in the last several years about the challenges the transgender community faces in general society, problems persist in healthcare. According to the American Medical Student Association, 20 percent of transgender people either postponed or avoided healthcare in the last year out of fear of discrimination in 2014.

Carolyn Wolf-Gould, the medical director of the center, said the grant is for research into the feasibility of a center of excellence for transgender health within the Bassett Healthcare Network, which also runs the A.O. Fox Hospital. If the outcome of the assessments is positive, the proposed center could be the first rural-based center of excellence for transgender health.

Wolf-Gould said over the last several years, she has felt the center has been a bit cobbled together but said she thinks that the grant will further solidify the direction of their operation.

“Right now we’re trying to stabilize what we have and develop it so that it’s a robust department or center that can move forward in a responsible way,” Wolf-Gould said.

The Gender Wellness Center currently provides a litany of services to transgender people, including several surgical options and mental health assistance. Wolf-Gould lists five main aspects of transgender health that the team intends to work on specifically: youth and adult medical services, gender affirming surgical services, mental health services, training for health care providers, medical students and residents, and community based research.

The grant and subsequent project are especially important to Wolf-Gould and her staff as medical professionals who have chosen to work with transgender people. She said that while it pales in comparison to discrimination the transgender population faces, those who provide that population medical care face a certain amount of adversity themselves in their fields.

“Transgender people have been misunderstood over time, and often viewed historically as being mentally ill,” Wolf-Gould said. “A constant theme has been the struggle to legitimize medical care for transgender people, and thus legitimize their lives. Many times the doctors who care for this population have also been viewed as suspect.”

That may be changing, Wolf-Gould said, as she has seen a sizable wave of change in terms of awareness and enthusiasm in the past 10 years. Attracting medical students to the field used to be a tough challenge, but now students are thrilled to spend a day in the Gender Wellness Center.

“It’s dizzying in some ways, it’s hard to keep up with, but I’m pleased by it […] I find it exciting,” she said. “Things are moving fast.”



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