Rantz: Despite ‘concerning’ transgender study, UW kept quiet because of positive coverage

Aug 23, 2022, 5:50 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2022, 2:41 pm
New signage is installed Dec. 30 at UW Medical Center – Northwest in Seattle. (Randy Carnell/UW M...
New signage is installed Dec. 30 at UW Medical Center – Northwest in Seattle. (Randy Carnell/UW Medicine)
(Randy Carnell/UW Medicine)

A University of Washington study, in partnership with Seattle Children’s Hospital, claimed gender-affirming care via puberty blockers leads to positive mental health outcomes for transgender teen patients. That characterization, however, was false, forcing substantial edits to the materials used to promote the study and prompting UW to cease promoting the research.

Despite all that, the UW communications staff chose not to proactively respond to “some pretty concerning claims” about the study because it had already received glowing media coverage, according to emails exclusively obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

In fact, the UW Medicine communications staff never reached out to media outlets that offered incorrect coverage based on the faulty press materials.

UW Medicine’s communications team first pushed out false information

Fourth-year UW Medicine student Arin Collin and UW epidemiology Ph.D. candidate Diana Tordoff tracked the mental health of 104 transgender patients aged 13 to 20 for a year. The patients received gender-affirming care, which the researchers defined as taking either Leuprolide, Testosterone, or Estradiol.

Using the data collected from patient experiences, the researchers and UW Medicine claimed in a press release that gender-affirming care “dramatically reduces” depression, calling it “lifesaving care.” The study was published in JAMA Open Network.

In a March 11 press release titled “Gender-affirming care dramatically reduces depression for transgender teens, study finds,” UW Medicine claimed that “researchers recently found that gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents caused rates of depression to plummet.”

This is not what the study claimed. The data shows there was virtually no improvement in mental health outcomes for the patients receiving gender-affirming care.

Glowing coverage with false information

The study received glowing coverage thanks to the press material.

KING 5 uncritically reported the study’s press release. Psychology Today added it to a list of studies showing the beneficial impacts of gender-affirming care. It received positive support from Science Friday. 

The original press release from UW Medicine was also overtly political. It pushed back against Republican-backed legislation concerning gender-affirming care, explicitly calling out Texas and Idaho.

“This research comes as the nation’s largest pediatric hospital announced this month it has stopped gender-affirming therapies after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the state’s child welfare agency to investigate reports of gender-affirming care for children as abuse. This week, a bill passed the Idaho State House which would make providing gender-affirming care a felony,” the press release originally said.

Similarly, an essay written by the study authors said their research could have an effect on “anti-transgender legislation.”

Knowingly dismissing concerns

Independent journalist Jesse Singal started asking questions of one of the study’s authors.

As noted in his well-researched and lengthy takedown of the study, when Singal asked to see the raw data (usually made available, though not in this case), he stopped getting responses from a study author. When he reached out to UW Medicine spokespeople, he was similarly denied the data.

Singal has a laundry list of issues with the study: 1) the data did not back up claims made about mental health improvement; 2) the researchers provide little specific data that is typically on display in these kinds of studies, and 3) the researchers may not have used the correct statistical method.

After Singal published his criticisms, internal emails between UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations. It was so concerning that Laura East, Department of Epidemiology spokesperson, wrote in an email that she wouldn’t promote the study.

“The article resulting from the inquiry was recently posted on the author’s Substack, and includes some pretty concerning claims. UW Epidemiology/UW SPH/UW News will not be including this article in our media tracking/or otherwise driving traffic to this piece,” East emailed communications colleagues at UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s.

UPDATE: Singal believes this email refers to UW staff promoting his Substack, but UW Medicine did not clarify in their statement. If Singal is right, of course, it means staff purposefully kept crucial criticisms of the study from those who would have likely benefited from the information.

Halt the promotion, but hold off on correcting

Though the criticism was concerning enough to stop UW from promoting the study internally, it wasn’t enough to help correct the record.

“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 continued.

UW Medicine Communications Manager Barbara Clements forwarded the email to Susan Gregg, UW Medicine spokesperson.

“FYI, I read through his exceedingly long (very, very long) article, which claimed the research was flawed or, at worst, made up, but given the extremely positive pick up by mainstream media, I would agree and just let this be,” Clements emailed.

Clements then wrote back to East to say she agreed and that “we won’t be promoting or responding as well.”

Seattle Children’s Hospital was also aware of the concerns. Madison Joseph, a communications specialist, was on an email thread discussing the issue.

“If the Seattle Children’s team gets any inquiries on social and/or through our press inbox, we will continue to not engage,” Madison wrote.

The quiet edits

UW Medicine fielded additional questions from conservative media outlets that read Singal’s piece. It prompted the communications team to quietly edit the materials.

In an email to a communications staffer, its acknowledged that a UW Medicine video producer “originally misinterpreted the data” in the press release.

The press release page on the UW Medicine website was changed to, “UW researchers recently found that gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adolescents likely decreased rates of depression and suicidality.”

This replaced the line claiming depression rates “plummeted.”

It also added a note at the top of the page: “[April 8, 2022: Editor’s note: Language has been updated below to more directly reflect the findings as reported in the study].”

But an email from the study team, relayed to the communications group via Laura East, prompted another edit.

I think it is important to note that this language is still not quite accurate. We did not observe a decrease in the rates of depression. We saw that youth who initiated PB/GAH has a lower odds of depression compared to youth who didn’t because depressive symptoms significantly worsened among youth who did NOT initiate PB/GAH. These are different (and has been particularly hard nuance to maintain re: science comm for this study). I think “mitigate” is an appropriate word to use instead of decrease.

The UW Medicine team made the edit, but by then, media outlets like KING 5 had already falsely declared the study reduced depression.

There was a question on clarifying anything at all

A UW Medicine spokesperson confirms to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that staff never reached out to media outlets to correct the record.

“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,” the spokesperson said via email. “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 corrections to the press release occurred on April 8. The original press release was sent on March 11. How would media outlets that originally covered the study know that corrections were made?

A UW Medicine spokesperson argues that, at the time of the corrections, “the transgender research was no longer a news story.”

“We felt it was adequate to update our newsroom as many online and print publications do when there is an error. The original media coverage was positive and I don’t think that reissuing the press release would have changed that,” the spokesperson explained to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

Offering a correction for putting out false information was the least UW Medicine could do. But emails imply that there was a question as to whether or not they should even clarify what they knew to be false.

Maybe we don’t respond

Dr. Kym Ahrens, an Assistant Professor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital and UW Medicine, was on the email chain and weighed in. She is one of the study’s authors.

“Also, if it gives too much attention to clarify at all, I am also very open to not responding,” she emailed hours after providing her own draft response to add context to the study.

Seattle Children’s Joseph responded.

“In my opinion, Jesse [Singal], and the reporters reaching out, all have an agenda, so anything we say will just add fuel to the fire,” she said. “I think a short, to-the-point note, like ‘UW and UW Medicine stand behind our researchers and the JAMA study is fine, but I wouldn’t go beyond that.”

Several emails noted that media outlets asking questions were conservative. In one instance, a staffer writes, “Laurel Duggan is from the Daily Caller, which was launched by Tucker Carlson.”

Neither Ahrens nor Joseph responded to requests for comment.

This seems intentional

It seems that UW Medicine communications staff intentionally kept the corrections to the study quiet. They were looking for positive coverage.

The study’s authors could have easily argued that gender-affirming care, based on their limited data, didn’t make outcomes worse for the teens they looked at. To be sure, the data isn’t robust in that case either. The patients went into the study with exceptionally troublesome mental health concerns. But, it’s more honest than the initial claims.

But that wasn’t the goal of the study, in my view.

As Singal argues (and I agree), one of the authors misrepresented the study. Why? I think the team wanted the study to support gender-affirming care. It would allow them to push back at what they believe is “anti-transgender” legislation they disagree with.

This is not good science. It’s not science at all, and it may either stop legislation from passing. Even worse, it may give patients false hope that potentially damaging gender-affirming care will help them.

UPDATE: An email above was attributed to Gregg as being sent to Clements. The names were inadvertently reversed. It is Clements who sent the email to Gregg.

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Rantz: Despite ‘concerning’ transgender study, UW kept quiet because of positive coverage