(LONDON) — A new report commissioned by the National Health Service England advocates for further research on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and young adults.

Dr. Hillary Cass, a former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, was appointed by NHS England and NHS Improvement to chair the Independent Review of Gender Identity Services in 2020 amid a rise in referrals to NHS’ gender services. Upon review, she advises “extreme caution” for the use of hormone therapies.

“It is absolutely right that children and young people, who may be dealing with a complex range of issues around their gender identity, get the best possible support and expertise throughout their care,” Cass states in the report.

Around 2022, about 5,000 adolescents and children were referred to the NHS’ gender services. The report estimated that roughly 20% of children and young people seen by the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) enter a hormone pathway — roughly 1,000 people under 18 in England.

Following four years of data analysis, Cass concluded that “while a considerable amount of research has been published in this field, systematic evidence reviews demonstrated the poor quality of the published studies, meaning there is not a reliable evidence base upon which to make clinical decisions, or for children and their families to make informed choices.”

Cass continued: “The strengths and weaknesses of the evidence base on the care of children and young people are often misrepresented and overstated, both in scientific publications and social debate,” read the report.

Among her recommendations, she urged the NHS to increase the available workforce in this field, to work on setting up more regional outlets for care, increase investment in research on this care, and improve the quality of care to meet international guidelines.

Cass’ review comes as the NHS continues to expand its children and young people’s gender identity services across the country. The NHS has recently opened new children and young people’s gender services based in London and the Northwest.

NHS England, the country’s universal healthcare system, said the report is expected to guide and shape its use of gender affirming care in children and potentially impact youth patients in England accessing gender-affirming care.

The debate over transgender youth care
In an interview with The Guardian, Cass stated that her findings are not intended to undermine the validity of trans identities or challenge young people’s right to transition but to improve the care they are receiving.

“We’ve let them down because the research isn’t good enough and we haven’t got good data,” Cass told the news outlet. “The toxicity of the debate is perpetuated by adults, and that itself is unfair to the children who are caught in the middle of it. The children are being used as a football and this is a group that we should be showing more compassion to.”

In the report, Cass argued that the knowledge and expertise of “experienced clinicians who have reached different conclusions about the best approach to care” has been “dismissed and invalidated” amid arguments concerning transgender care in youth.

Cass did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment.

Recommendations for trans youth care
Cass is calling for more thorough research that looks at the “characteristics, interventions and outcomes” of NHS gender service patients concerning puberty blockers and hormone therapy, particularly among children and adolescents.

The report’s recommendations also urge caregivers to take an approach to care that considers young patients “holistically and not solely in terms of their gender-related distress.”

The report notes that identity exploration is “a completely natural process during childhood and adolescence.”

Cass recommends that pre-pubertal children and their families have early discussions about how parents can best support their child “in a balanced and non-judgemental way,” which may include “psychological and psychopharmacological treatments” to manage distress associated with gender incongruence and co-occurring conditions.

In past interviews, U.S. physicians told ABC News, that patients, their physicians and their families often engage in a lengthy process of building a customized and individualized approach to care, meaning not every patient will receive any or every type of gender-affirming medical care option.

Cass’ report states that evidence particularly for puberty blockers in children and adolescents is “weak” regarding the impact on “gender dysphoria, mental or psychosocial health. The effect on cognitive and psychosexual development remains unknown.”

The NHS has said it will halt routine use of puberty blockers as it prepares for a study into the practice later this year.

According to the Endocrine Society puberty blockers, as opposed to hormone therapy, temporarily pause puberty so patients have more time to explore their gender identity.

The report also recommends “extreme caution” for transgender youth from age 16 who take more permanent hormone therapies.

“There should be a clear clinical rationale for providing hormones at this stage rather than waiting until an individual reaches 18,” the report’s recommendations state.

Hormone therapy, according to the Endocrine Society, triggers physical changes like hair growth, muscle development, body fat and more, that can help better align the body with a person’s gender identity. It’s not unusual for patients to stop hormone therapy and decide that they have transitioned as far as they wish, physicians have told ABC News.

Cass’ report asserts that there are many unknowns about the use of both puberty blockers and hormones for minors, “despite their longstanding use in the adult transgender population.”

“The lack of long-term follow-up data on those commencing treatment at an earlier age means we have inadequate information about the range of outcomes for this group,” the report states.

Cass recommends that NHS England facilities have procedures in place to follow up with 17 to 25-year-old patients “to ensure continuity of care and support at a potentially vulnerable stage in their journey,” as well as allow for further data and research on transgender minors through the years.

Several British medical organizations, including British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, commended the report’s recommendations to expand the workforce and invest in further research to allow young people to make better informed decisions.

“Dr Cass and her team have produced a thought-provoking, detailed and wide-ranging list of recommendations, which will have implications for all professionals working with gender-questioning children and young people,” said Dr Roman Raczka, of the British Psychological Society. “It will take time to carefully review and respond to the whole report, but I am sure that psychology, as a profession, will reflect and learn lessons from the review, its findings and recommendations.”

Some groups expressed fears that the report will be misused by anti-transgender groups.

“All children have the right to access specialist effective care on time and must be afforded the privacy to make decisions that are appropriate for them in consultation with a specialist,” said human rights group Amnesty International. “This review is being weaponised by people who revel in spreading disinformation and myths about healthcare for trans young people.”

Transgender care for people under 18 has been a source of contention in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Legislation is being pushed across the U.S. by many Republican legislators focused on banning all medical care options like puberty blockers and hormone therapies for minors. Some argue that gender-affirming care is unsafe for youth, or that they should wait until they’re older.

Gender-affirming medical does come with risks, according to the Endocrine Society, including impacts to bone mineral density, cholesterol levels, and blood clot risks. However, physicians have told ABC News that all medications, surgeries or vaccines come with some kind of risk.

Major national medical associations in the U.S., including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and more than 20 others have argued that gender-affirming care is safe, effective, beneficial, and medically necessary.

The first-of-its-kind gender care clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland opened in the 1960s, using similar procedures still used today.

Some studies have shown that some gender-affirming options can have positive impacts on the mental health of transgender patients, who may experience gender-related stress.

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.