Pronouns matter in health care (and everywhere).

Pronouns matter in health care (and everywhere).

Everyone has a part to play in creating a safe and affirming society for all individuals inclusive of their race, sexual orientation, gender, ability, language, citizenship, or more. In doing so, language matters, including the thoughtful use of pronouns.

Clinicians have an important role in building an inclusive society.

It's important for health care providers to consider the unique needs of patients, including those who identify as transgender or gender diverse. Unfortunately, these individuals often face significant barriers when it comes to accessing care and navigating a health care system that is not always equipped to support them. In fact, a significant number of patients have reported negative experiences in health care settings due to their gender identity.

Despite this, some health care professionals may believe that they do not need to worry about these issues because they do not see many transgender patients in their practice. However, the reality is that all health care providers will encounter patients who identify as transgender or gender diverse at some point in their careers.

Recent studies suggest that the number of transgender and gender diverse individuals may be underestimated, due to fear of discrimination and lack of visibility. However, with increased visibility and acceptance in society, more data is emerging about the health disparities faced by these groups.

It's crucial that health care providers stay informed and adapt to meet the needs of all patients, including those who identify as transgender or gender diverse. By taking steps such as asking patients about their preferred pronouns, we can create a more inclusive and welcoming health care industry for everyone.

What is a gender pronoun?

Gender pronouns are used to reference oneself. These pronouns can be gender specific (she/her or he/him), gender neutral (they/them), or can be created as an alternative to the gender binary (ze/zie/hirs). People's gender pronouns can change over time to match their identity and these pronouns may or may not always match their gender expression.

The most commonly used gender pronouns are she/her/hers and he/him/his. Typically, these are referred to as "female" or "feminine" and "male" or "masculine" pronouns, however, many people avoid using definitions like this because not everyone who uses she/her/hers and he/him/his identifies as female or male respectively.

Why is it important to respect gender pronouns in health care settings and beyond?

A person’s gender pronouns are an important part of their identity and gender expression, and for the LGBTQIA+ community, they’re often one part of a long journey of self-discovery. Asking someone what their gender pronouns are and correctly using those pronouns is a great and simple way to show your respect for their identity. When you refer to someone using the incorrect pronouns, it can feel like you’re invalidating their identity and make them feel disrespected, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric.

In the context of care settings, it’s important for clinicians to learn as much about their patients as possible in order to create an identity-centered care plan. Why? Because identity-centered care lends itself toward comprehensive treatment and unlocks better patient outcomes, retention, and satisfaction.

Clinicians can start every appointment by offering their pronouns and asking their patients to offer them too. The CDC now even has resources including gender-inclusive scripts for medical staff.

Remember: While most of us are assigned gender specific pronouns at birth, it's a privilege to not have to reconsider which pronouns you're using on the basis of your perceived gender.

What can providers do?

  • Encourage pronoun sharing with those who are comfortable. As allies, openly and proactively sharing your own pronouns takes the burden off of others, usually placed on members of the LGBTQIA+ community, who may feel unsafe or unwelcomed to share their pronouns first. Normalizing the sharing of pronouns leads to a better understanding of how others identify and how to affirm those identities.
  • Don’t require pronoun sharing. Openly sharing pronouns can be difficult for those who are private, uncomfortable, or questioning their gender identity, or have limited English proficiency.
  • Use people’s correct pronouns and correct yourself (and others) when misgendering occurs. When making a mistake, apologize briefly and move on. Going into a long, elaborate apology decenters the person and can make them feel uncomfortable.

Examples of non-binary pronoun usage.

Non-binary pronoun usage can be new for many people. But adoption is necessary because you will likely encounter non-binary patients at some point in your career.

Here’s an example of how to properly incorporate non-binary pronouns. It is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start after asking a patient about their pronouns:

  • They/Them/Theirs: Tai has arrived for their appointment. Can you go find them in the waiting room?
  • Ze/Zie/Hir: How did Dani get to the hospital? Ze drove hir car.
  • Xe/Xem/Xir: Sam’s diagnosis is good, xe is excited to celebrate with friends and family.

Places where clinicians (and everyone else) can share their pronouns:

  • Email signature
  • Name or ID tag
  • Name plate
  • Lanyard
  • Zoom name
  • Slack name
  • Social media profile

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