New VCU course focuses on transgender healthcare

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — When you’re transgender, finding a doctor who understands your specific needs can be a challenge, so now the VCU School of Medicine is taking a new step to help.

Rob Phillips’ Chesterfield consignment store continues to grow, and now along with professional success he can finally celebrate who he is personally too.

“It’s awesome. I feel more at peace,” says Phillips, explaining that he began transitioning from female to male three years ago after decades of feeling different.

Weeks after starting testosterone, the now 43-year-old suffered a stroke, ended up in the hospital and faced the unimaginable.

“I felt like I was on exhibit of some sort while I was there,” Phillips recalls his first hospital stay as a trans male.  “They actually started funneling a lot of people in.  I felt like a freak show almost.”

“Healthcare and the transgender population have not been friends, and there are a lot of horror stories,” says VCU Professor, Dr. Tarynn M. Witten.

Those horror stories, according to Dr. Witten, include violence, abuse, misinformation and limited access to care.  She’s been doing lectures on trans research and medicine at VCU for the past seven years and knew the issue reached a turning point when student Courtney Saw approached her about developing a transgender health course.

“To develop a comfort level and a good rapport with the patient so they feel open in the first place,” Saw shares her vision for this course, one of the first in the entire country.

Adds Dr. Witten, “It’s kind of like a buffet course in a way they’ll get a little bit of a lot of things.  It will at least give them a starting point for what do you do when a person who is trans walks into your office and says I need help.”

The elective will begin this fall for fourth year medical and nursing students, but members of the Curriculum Council are hopeful this is just the beginning.

“Other schools might see this and be able to either incorporate similar or the same sort of curriculum in their programs,” says Dr. Mark Ryan who chairs a subcommittee within the Council.

There are an estimated 700,000 transgender people living in the U.S., and that number is expected to grow as acceptance does.

Phillips applauds VCU for being a part of the solution.  “I know a lot of my friends and myself are afraid to go to the doctors, and it’s awkward and it’s like we have to educate the doctors.”

With more awareness, though, issues Phillips has faced in the past are changing.  It offers him more options during this new chapter in his life.

“I feel more confident.  I’m out there.  I’m more of an extrovert now.  It’s just wonderful,” says Phillips.

Right now this course at VCU will be an elective for primary care, endocronology, psychiatry and some other specialities.  There is a chance it will eventually be a standard part of the curriculum for all VCU medical students.

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