For the past few months, NHS England have been running a consultation on Gender Identity Services for Adults (i.e. services typically provided through a Gender Identity Clinic, or GIC).
There’s still just over a week to respond: the consultation is open until Monday 16th October, and you can respond here.
Unfortunately, NHS England have not made the consultation process particularly clear. The documents are quite long and the whole thing can appear unnecessarily complex. So in this blog post, I explain what the consultation is about, why it matters, and how you can participate. I also outline some key issues within the consultation.
What is this all about?
NHS England have prepared two draft service specification documents: one for surgical services (including genital and chest surgeries), and one for non-surgical services (basically everything else, including assessment and diagnosis, hormones, counselling, voice therapy etc.
These draft documents are currently under consultation, with stakeholders (i.e. trans people, medical professionals and other interested parties) invited to comment on them.
Who is affected?
Basically everyone who is accessing (or intends to access) a GIC or surgery through the NHS in England, and every medical professional and NHS worker involved in delivering these services. This includes all patients based at England GICs. It will also indirectly affect patients in Wales who access treatment through Charing Cross, and patients across the whole of the UK who access surgical services in England. In time, Wales should get its own GIC, but this isn’t due to happen yet for some time.
What will this consultation do?
Following the consultation, the service specification documents will be used to commission services. That means: a GIC will need to meet the requirements of the service specification in order for NHS England to commission them.
If the GIC does not meet the requirements of the service specification, they may lose their right to provide services through the NHS.
So, in the future the service specification documents can (in theory) be used to hold GICs to account. If certain inappropriate or discriminatory practices at a GIC are seen to contravene the service specification, then they might effectively have their funding pulled.
There are a lot of clauses in the new service specification documents that would effectively ban a range of potentially harmful practices that currently exist in some GICs. For example, some GICs require that patients undergo unnecessary genital examinations prior to hormone therapy, while others insist that family members attend assessment meetings in order to corroborate patients’ accounts of gender dysphoria. Both of these practices are explicitly prohibited in the draft guidelines.
At the same time, there are some really questionable elements that remain in the service specification, such as the requirement for GIC patients to be registered with a GP. This can discriminate against people of no fixed abode, such as asylum seekers, homeless people, Travellers and many sex workers.
In responding to the consultation, you get a say on what the new guidelines should look like – the bits you think are good, and the bits you think need re-thinking.
What will this consultation not do?
An issue I have with this consultation is that it doesn’t address the fundamental power imbalance that currently exists between GIC gatekeepers and trans patients.
The consultation also doesn’t directly address the commissioning of new services; instead, it focuses on existing services. So, interventions that aren’t already currently funded as standard by NHS England (such as breast augmentation and facial feminisation surgeries) are not included.
These are things you may wish to comment on in your response (I have done so). However, you should bear in mind that this consultation is primarily about improving existing practice, rather than undertaking fundamental reform. So, by responding you should definitely be able to help improve people’s lives in the short term, but we also need to continue being proactive with trans health activism in order to bring about bigger changes in the long term.
But wait, haven’t we been here before?
Yes. NHS England previously consulted on draft commissioning documents in 2013 and 2015. On both occasions, a considerable number of trans stakeholders indicated that the documents weren’t fit for purpose: they were too strict, too binary, and pathologised trans people too much. Each time, NHS England went back to the drawing board.
I studied these documents for my PhD. One of the really interesting things about them, is that each time they’re revised and come back to consultation, they’re more progressive, reflecting interventions from trans health advocates. For example, non-binary and genderqueer identities and experiences were barely mentioned in the 2013 document. There was some level of inclusion in 2015, and then the current non-surgical specification makes a real effort to avoid binary language altogether.
From the lessons I’ve learned in my work, I also think that this time around, the service specification will be implemented. This is a bigger and more wide-ranging consultation from before, and at events NHS England representatives have given a strong indication that they’re very keen to re-commission services during 2017-18. So, this is our major chance to bring about change in some areas.
Okay, so how do I take part?
There are three documents to read. There are the two service specification documents:
There is also a third document: the consultation guide. This one’s a bit of a mess.
The consultation guide provides information on the background to the consultation (pages 5-8), and includes some questions for respondents to consider (pages 9-12).
Four options are outlines for how hormone prescriptions might be managed in the future (pages 13-20).
Finally, there’s an equality impact assessment, which summarises the impact (both positive and negative) that NHS England thinks the document will have upon particular marginalised groups, including older and younger trans people, disabled trans people, trans people of different genders and sexualities, married trans people, trans people of colour, and trans people of faith (pages 21-32).
Once you’ve read the documents, you can email your thoughts about what you think is good and what needs changing to NHS England: email@example.com.
You can also take part in an online survey: https://www.engage.england.nhs.uk/survey/gender-identity-services-for-adults/consultation/.
The survey refers to the three main consultation documents at various points, so have these handy when you take it.
Altogether, reading the documents and responding to the survey took me about four hours. If that feels like a really long time, bear in mind that you don’t have to respond to everything in the documents in order to take part in the consultation. You can choose to respond just to particular key issues (see below for two examples), or do it a bit at a time.
In particular, it’s worth bearing in mind that the online survey allows you to save your response and come back to it later.
Since this is such a big consultation, there’s a lot to talk about. I’m trying to keep this post relatively concise, so I can’t cover it all (although I do link to some further reading at the end if you want look into this further).
So, here’s a couple of things that I feel are particularly worth focusing on.
- Prescribing arrangementsUnder the current system, patients are referred by their GP to a GIC. At the GIC they are assessed for gender dysphoria. Upon receiving a diagnosis, the GIC instructs the patient’s GP to prescribe hormones, if this is something the patient wants.The consultation proposes that this approach potentially be changed. It offers four options for different systems, which are outlined in the consultation guide, on pages 13-20. Option A is the status quo, as described above.
Options B and C offer variations on this: in Option B, the GIC provides the first prescription and then the GP provides prescriptions thereafter. This would mean that patients can pick up their first prescription pretty much immediately. Option C requires prescriptions to be provided by the GIC for the first year. This would mean that patients would approach the GIC for a repeat prescription during this time.
Option D proposes a major change: the appointment of a local specialist by each Clinical Commissioning Group, which means (in theory) there is a GP specialising in trans hormones in each local area. It is not entirely clear whether or not these GPs would continue to rely on GICs for assessments, nor if other GPs will be able to prescribe hormones still as they do at present.
Option D is the most interesting option here in part because it offers the most radical change. There are some serious potential benefits and drawbacks. For example, this approach might lead to a decentralisation of care, whereby patients might access hormones (and potentially other services) from a specialist GP working in collaboration with an endocrinologist. On the other hand, it might lead to less GPs providing basic services as they do at present, which might be a problem particularly in rural areas.
Ultimately, none of these options are perfect. Personally, I feel some combination of A and D could be beneficial: but I recommend reading through the options yourself and having a think.
- Referral to GICs
At present, English patients are generally referred to GICs by their GP, although they can also be referred by a local mental health provider. This contrasts with Wales, where at present patients are referred first to a local mental health provider who then refers on to the GIC, and Scotland, where some providers accept self-referral.The draft service specification for non-surgical services currently insists that all patients be registered with a GP, who provides the referral to a GIC. The rationale for this is that – under the existing system – patients require a co-operative GP in order to provide hormone prescriptions.However, not all NHS patients are registered with a GP. This is acknowledged in the equality impact assessment included in the consultation guide, which states that people of no fixed abode might not have access to gender identity services as a result. Moreover, trans patients sometimes have to search for a long time for a GP who will provide them with a referral.
I propose that NHS England follow the existing NHS Scotland guidelines in allowing for self-referral. This means that patients have the opportunity to find a supportive GP while they are on a waiting list and/or undergoing assessment. Moreover, it would be beneficial if some arrangement can be made to support patients who are still without a GP following diagnosis (perhaps some variant on Option C for hormone prescriptions).
The above two issues are by no means the only pressing matters in the consultation: just two that I feel are particularly important. You may feel otherwise!
For more information, thoughts, reflections and ideas for responding to the consultation, here is a range of further reading.