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Article Outlines Best Practices for Communicating With Non-Binary Patients

A new article published today in the Annals of Family Medicine puts a spotlight on the health care needs of an often overlooked group of patients: those who identify as non-binary. Communicating With Patients Who Have Nonbinary Gender Identities outlines the ways in which providers can interact affirmatively and respectfully with non-binary patients, and explains the proper language to use when talking about these identities.

The article was authored by Hilary Goldhammer, SM of the National LGBT Health Education Center at The Fenway Institute; Sula Malina, BA, of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation; and Alex S. Keuroghlian, MD, MPH of the National LGBT Health Education Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.

“Non-binary” describes a person whose gender identity falls outside the traditional binary gender paradigm of either girl/woman or boy/man. Often, people who identify as non-binary have gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them/theirs.”

As the article authors explain, “the increasing visibility of transgender people and others who do not conform to traditional gender norms challenges us to think about gender in new ways, and to use new terminology when communicating with patients.”

Non-binary patients often face barriers to accessing affirming health care due to the lack of physician understanding of their gender identities. A non-binary person may delay or avoid medical appointments due to the fear that their provider will not take their gender identity and pronouns seriously or be entirely dismissive of them

There are a number of steps that health care providers can take to help their non-binary patients feel respected and comfortable during their appointments:

  • Avoid the use of gendered honorifics such as “Sir” or “Ma’am,” and instruct front desk and support staff in using gender-inclusive language.
  • Update patient intake forms to be more inclusive. Ask for information such as pronouns, name and gender on insurance, gender identity, and name the patient goes by.
  • Always respect the patient’s pronouns, and apologize if the wrong pronouns are mistakenly used.
  • Be aware that patients may experience gender dysphoria and/or may not be comfortable with gendered terms for body parts. Ask patients what terms they use for their anatomy and mirror those during the exam.

These communication best practices can help health care providers ensure that their non-binary patients are receiving comprehensive and compassionate care that is affirming of their identities. By taking a patient-centered approach, providers will be well positioned to respond to our society’s continually changing understanding of gender and expression, and move beyond a binary approach to care.

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