Amid contentious debates over gender identity, the University of Washington Medicine, or UW Medicine, proudly and eagerly alerted the press of a study in mid-March indicating that transgender teen patients saw rates of depression “plummet” because of so-called “gender-affirming care.”
The study earned nationwide praise. As Texas and Idaho were debating bans on allowing children to receive cross-sex hormones, this was the perfect research to show the heartlessness of conservative lawmakers and pundits who declared puberty blockers and surgical intervention as a dangerous and potentially irreversible gamble.
Most dramatically, after tracking the mental health of 104 transgender-identifying patients aged 13 to 20 for a year at Seattle Children’s Hospital, “gender-affirming care was associated with a 60% reduction in depression and a 73% drop in harmful or suicidal thoughts among the participants.”
But the study didn’t actually say what was initially claimed. Some voices now accuse the researchers of purposefully misinterpreting data to promote the irreversible.
UW Medicine’s communications department seemingly unintentionally misinterpreted the study. But their unwillingness to proactively correct the record was part of a concerted effort to downplay their errors because they had already received positive press, according to emails I uncovered through a public disclosure request.
The original press release was sent on March 11 and claimed that “gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents caused rates of depression to plummet.”
By April 8, UW Medicine communications staff dramatically changed the claims.
Independent journalist Jesse Singal started posing questions about the study to UW Communications staff, and one of the study’s authors, who agreed to speak on background, confirmed that some of the data the researchers presented, along with their claims, did not add up.
“Among the kids who went on hormones, there isn’t genuine statistical improvement here from baseline to the final wave of data collection,” Singal wrote on his Substack. “At baseline, 59% of the treatment-naive kids experienced moderate to severe depression. Twelve months later, 56% of the kids on GAM [gender-affirming medicine] experienced moderate to severe depression. At baseline, 45% of the treatment-naive kids experienced self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Twelve months later, 37% of the kids on GAM did.”
In other words, there was no statistically significant improvement. At best, the authors could argue that wrong-sex hormones and trans surgeries did not make these children’s depression worse than it already was.
Laura East, Department of Epidemiology spokeswoman, emailed colleagues that Singal posted “some pretty concerning claims.” However, she wrote that UW Medicine should not respond.
“As there is an overwhelming amount of positive coverage of the study’s findings, I don’t believe there’s a need for a proactive response beyond continuing to monitor, but welcome your ideas for any other actions or messaging with the study team. Happy to jump on a call too, if that’s easier,” East said.
One UW Medicine staffer acknowledged that, at worst, the research was “made up” yet did not want to engage because it had already received “extremely positive” coverage. At Seattle Children’s, a staffer won’t respond to reasonable criticisms that could affect its patients and their families.
Dr. Kym Ahrens, an assistant professor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Medicine, is one of the study’s authors and was on an email chain with the communications staff. After initially writing a draft statement to clarify the findings, she offered an alternative plan.
“If it gives too much attention to clarify at all, I am also very open to not responding,” she suggested via email.
Ahrens did not respond to a request for comment to clarify her intent.
The pressure was mounting, and emails show that it became clear to the staff that they were wrong. They finally made edits to their press release on April 8, nearly a month after the positive coverage was broadcast and posted. The revisions were dramatic.
“UW researchers recently found that gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents likely mitigated rates of depression and suicidality,” the press release claimed in a significant departure from declarations of “plummeting” depression rates.
But UW Medicine admits it never reached out to media outlets that reported the incorrect data.
“UW Medicine did not proactively reach out to any media outlet to correct the information, however, we made the correction to our newsroom website and called out that a correction had been made,” a spokesman said via email to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “When we distribute press releases on research conducted at UW Medicine, we always link to the original research within the release so that media not only see how we presented the information but have access to the source information. We appreciate that the error was brought to our attention so that we could make that correction on our website and provide the updated language to any media who inquired about the study from that point forward.”
The spokesman clarified that UW Medicine didn’t reach out because “the transgender research was no longer a news story” and that the edits wouldn’t have changed the positive news coverage.
But it should have.
The study itself is concerning. The findings, and subsequent interviews and postings by some researchers, seem intentionally misleading. And as Singal pointed out, due to a lack of available data, parts of the study are unnecessarily difficult to understand.
This study promotes the irreversible genital mutilation of impressionable children and suggests that it might alleviate their depression. Media coverage of this study could influence parents to seek out these procedures for their children, and it convinces medical professionals to keep their concerns private.
This sets up patients for possible failure, prevents honest inquiry into what the data says, and can unduly influence laws under debate. The inaccurate press release has real-world consequences.
So why is there disinterest in pursuing and publicizing corrections? It appears the study was agenda-driven from the start.
The study’s authors appear to have wanted data to back up their preconceived notions and preferred worldview, and corporate media outlets and progressive reporters wanted the study’s incorrect findings to be true.