Trans Buddy Program is Transforming Health for Community

story by Kelly Harrison | illustration by Brian Goins

What if you could build a bridge? Not just any bridge but a bridge between health care professionals and transgender individuals seeking medical care in your community? By pairing trans individuals with an advocate to help them through all aspects of the medical process, the Trans Buddy program, presented by the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health, is focusing on doing just that.

The Trans Buddy program was founded in 2014 with the goal of increasing access to health care at VUMC for transgender patients and increasing patient satisfaction with the care provided. Trans Buddy volunteers are able to address the needs of the client when it comes to providing continued support through any and all transition-related health care and even through routine non-transition appointments. By doing this, the program is building bridges to safer and more comfortable healthcare to the trans and gender non-conforming community.

To be paired with a Buddy, a trans patient needs only to call the hotline at 615.875.BUDD(2833) and a trained Buddy will answer questions, refer them to a trans-friendly provider and even go to appointments with them if needed. The Buddy plays a very casual but important role while helping provide emotional and logistical support. Volunteers also help clients with scheduling clinical appointments and with emergency care. A Buddy can also be there to talk with the client in the waiting room, help a client stay relaxed during a medical visit or even take notes and help the client process the information the medical provider has given them during the visit. Anytime there is a misunderstanding, the volunteer can step in and help the staff become more culturally aware and teach them how to best communicate with transgender or nonconforming patients. Volunteers are trained to focus on the needs of their client, which can sometimes mean helping the medical provider realize that they need to start the patient/doctor relationship out by asking the right questions. By understanding and using the proper pronoun for the patient or realizing that the name on the chart may differ from the name they actually go by, the provider will be able to serve the patient in a more culturally sensitive manner that will then help build trust between the two parties. Volunteers are there to serve however they can make the journey more comfortable for the patient during times when stress can already be a factor.

The Trans Buddy program takes great care when placing people into the program as volunteers. After being interviewed and passing a background check, volunteers complete a 12-hour training program covering a wide range of information in order to learn how to best serve the transgender community. Some of the information they go over during training is insurance information specifically linked to this type of care. They also work on developing listening skills, compassion and emotional support, and learning how to target the needs of their client so they are helping in the best ways possible. The volunteers are then asked to sign up for one to two 12 hour shifts per month, have some flexibility in their schedule and be able to respond to calls from their mobile phone. A diverse group of volunteers sharing compassion for people is what makes this program work, because of the growth of the community, they are always recruiting volunteers in the middle Tennessee area and they do not discriminate based on gender identity. All volunteers are welcome.

This program targets and addresses the needs of transgender patients in the community by listening to their specific concerns of how to access safe and reliable healthcare. Insurance companies are not the same across the board with procedures or what may be covered.

Transgender patients are still dealing with claims being kicked back because of a lack of understanding from these companies and because of this or fear of discrimination, they often put off medical care. Having this program in place is one way to help stop the delay of necessary medical care.

Putting the patients’ needs at the forefront is a powerful way to directly support the transgender community and allows them to make informed health choices. Because of the effectiveness of the Trans Buddy program, organizations in other cities have reached out to Vanderbilt to learn how they can replicate this program. In response, VUMC is working diligently to create and roll out a toolkit that will be instrumental in assisting others interested in becoming Trans Buddy affiliates.

After two years of planning and preparation, VUMC will open a Gender Clinic in early 2019. This clinic will be the first of its kind, a “One Stop Shop” for patients where they can receive all of their gender-affirming services in one place. Some of the care that will be offered at the clinic is Hormone Therapy, Urology, OBGYN services, Mental Health and Surgical Consults.

“The opening of the (clinic) represents nearly three years’ worth of work by a dedicated team of caring providers and staff,” said Del Ray Zimmerman, LGBT+ Health Program Manager at VUMC. “While we’ve long enjoyed working with transgender patients, our hope is that the new clinic will increase our level of service, make accessing clinical services easier for patients, and become a model of healthcare for other institutions throughout the South.

The clinic will be temporarily located at 7069-B Highway 70S in the Bellevue Plaza, near Kroger, with limited hours.

For more info on the Trans Buddy program or the Gender Clinic, contact Del Ray Zimmerman at 615.936.3879.

If you are in need of a Trans Buddy, call the hotline at 615.875.BUDD(2833).

If you are interested in volunteering, email