For many transgender people in the UK, she has been a saving grace, the only path toward transition in a system bogged down in wait lists and red tape.
But Dr. Helen Webberley’s extraordinary approach to treating trans people across Britain has not been met with the same enthusiasm by government officials.
After three years of treating trans patients through a groundbreaking online system, Webberley’s web practice has been shuttered by authorities in Wales.
Webberley fills a unique if not odd role in the United Kingdom, where trans people looking to medically transition have historically relied on The National Health Service (NHS), the publicly-funded health system.
Many patients and parents of trans kids have lamented long wait times in accessing trans treatment through NHS. In some cases, waits can be up to four years.
Webberley, a generalist family doctor, stumbled into treating thousands of trans patients almost accidentally after she moved to Wales a few years ago.
She was interested in the ways that the internet might make health care more accessible for people, and wanted to try treating patients online.
“It’s just silly, and so many things could just be a quick email to the doctor and a quick photo,” Webberley said. She was treating a handful of transgender people at the time. So, she listed transgender health care on her online clinic and clicked “publish.”
The next day, she awoke to a flood of inquiries.
“Every morning still, I can’t believe that we haven’t exhausted all the transgender people,” Webberley said.
Webberley provides something almost unheard of: Using her online clinic, a transgender person can get hormones, therapy, and medical advice without ever leaving home. Patients can even get blood test kits sent to their homes. There is no physical examination, a major barrier for many transgender people in accessing health care.
Such practice is hard to come by, even in the U.S., where Webberley has looked for model standards for care for treating trans patients. One such practice, QueerMed in Atlanta and New York, operates a tele-med clinic for trans patients, but patients are still legally required to attend an in-person visit.
That is life-saving work in the UK, where transgender people face discrimination in every facet of life. According to a report this year from UK LGBTQ advocacy organization Stonewall, 42 percent of trans people who would like to transition medically won’t because they fear consequences in their family lives. A staggering 44 percent of trans people avoid certain streets in the UK out of fear for their safety. And, most applicable to Webberley’s case, 41 percent said they avoided health care because physicians don’t understand trans health.
Webberley says it’s crucial to her work that patients don’t have to risk their safety to access care.
“What they have to do in Wales is they have to get on a train in a dress,” Webberley said.
But if this practice administering health care via the internet seems risky, that’s because it is.
Webberley has faced intense backlash in the media and from regulating medical bodies. The Healthcare Inspectorate Wales (HIW) has blocked her from administering practicing medicine online after concluding earlier this month that she illegally provided health care services without registering under the country’s Care Standards Act 2000.
“The Prosecution follows a period in which Dr. Webberley had refused to stop providing services to patients,” said a spokesperson for HIW in a statement to INTO. She will be sentenced on Nov. 2 and is expected to be fined.
Webberley contends that she tried to register the clinic with HIW two years ago, and then again last February. Webberley claims the Inspectorate could not decide how to classify the clinic and refused her requests to meet to before starting proceedings against her.
It’s the second time in as many years Webberley has faced troubles over her operation. Last year, she faced an investigation by the UK’s General Medical Council after she prescribed hormones to transgender 12-year-old. The move went against NHS recommendations, which suggest waiting until a child reaches 16 years of age. Webberley defended the move as life-saving and says both parent and youth were desperate for treatment that NHS would not provide.
“There was so much talk about self-harm and anguish that I wonder if that child would have been here if we had not done it,” she said.
Webberley claims that her legal troubles are the upshot of anti-trans discrimination and the proprietary nature of health care in the UK. Many NHS doctors supplement their incomes with private practices and critics in recent years have said that wait lists for trans health are in fact a money-maker for NHS doctors who practice on the side.
While she awaits a sentence from HIW, her husband Dr. Mike Webberley continues to keep the practice going. Webberley says the clinic currently treats between 1,100 and 1,200 transgender patients. Those patients still need services.
“Getting transgender care right saves lives,” she said. “Definitely. Full stop.”
Image via Twitter