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Understanding Gender Disparities in Healthcare

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Unfortunately, medical errors and misdiagnoses are somewhat common in healthcare across the board. Practising medicine is a science, and often not an exact one.

In most cases, doctors and health care providers, even when they make an error or miss something, are doing the best they can with the available information and resources. Less often, a person might end up receiving compensation for medical errors because the health care provider didn’t act as another reasonable provider would have under the same circumstances. 

These situations can happen to anyone, male or female, but we’re starting to learn more about gender disparities in medicine and health care. 

There are growing stories and attention on situations where women don’t feel that they’re being listened to by their care providers. As a result, it’s causing complications, delaying treatment or in some cases, even killing them. 

Luckily because there is more attention on something that’s likely not a new concept in medicine, the hope is that it will begin to be remedied, but it will take time. 

The following are some things to know about gender disparities in health care, as we understand them now. 

Historical context

Modern medical research has, as a rule, generally focused on the health of men. It’s only been in the past 25 years or so that’s started shifting. There was at one point a law that women couldn’t participate in clinical trials for the most part. 

That law was replaced with legislation requiring women to be included in trials, but the fact that it’s a somewhat new development, relatively speaking, means health care providers and researchers are just now really started to learn about the differences between males and females in terms of health and particularly with specific conditions.  

Diseases that affect women more than men only receive a small percentage of the funding for diseases affecting men. Even in conditions affecting both similarly, such as heart disease, research understanding the differences lags far behind for women. 

The risks of bias in healthcare

Some dangers can potentially be life-threatening when genders aren’t offered equal treatment and care for the same complaints or when disease symptoms aren’t considered because of sex. 

Examples of particular risks bias can create include:

  • We mentioned heart disease above, and heart attack is a top killer of women in America. Since 1984, the death rate of heart attacks has been more significant for women than for men. There’s no physical reason researchers can find that this should be true. When women receive the same treatments as men, they have survival odds that are the same. That begs the question of whether the greater danger for women is the result of the response to their heart attacks rather than the condition itself. 
  • Heart attacks tend not to cause the same symptoms in women as in men. For example, they’re less painful for women, so women may be more likely to believe their symptoms are due to some other cause. Women have to learn how to recognize their own signs, and a lot of that will rely on education from their medical providers. 
  • Mental health is another realm of health where we often see a gender bias. Women are more likely to be treated for depression than men, even though depression rates don’t vary much between genders. One reason could be that women are more likely to be seen as having emotional “issues” than men. 
  • When women complain of pain, they’re often not taken as seriously as they should be. Conditions are causing chronic pain that women deal with, like endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome, yet health care providers tend to dismiss women’s pain more often than they do men’s. 
  • Autoimmune conditions are difficult and complex to diagnose. Unfortunately, people who ultimately receive a diagnosis are often first treated as if they’re just complaining or perhaps looking for a problem. Around 75% of people with autoimmune conditions are women, so when the symptoms of these conditions are treated dismissively, it’s an issue disproportionately affecting them. 

You’ll often hear stories from women or maybe you’ve experienced them yourself where heart disease in a woman is diagnosed as anxiety, or an autoimmune disorder gets a depression diagnosis. 

Women feel like they’re being gaslighted in many of these circumstances by the people who they’re supposed quite literally to trust with their life. It’s frustrating, upsetting and even highly dangerous. 

How can women advocate for themselves?

A lot of the work that needs to be done to make sure women are being adequately treated in health care is going to have to come from the top-down. Health care providers are starting to recognize these situations more and take steps to fix them. 

As a woman, there are also steps you can take to be your own advocate when it comes to the care you receive. 

Things you can do to advocate for yourself and make sure you’re getting the treatment you deserve and require include:

  • Do your research. Doctors do get things wrong, and they don’t know everything, so by being prepared for your visits, you can help the diagnostic process. If your doctor says something that doesn’t make sense to you, if nothing else, by having done your research, you’ll know some other questions to ask. 
  • Don’t be afraid to doctor shop. If you’re dealing with a doctor who’s dismissing your symptoms, go elsewhere. Find someone who’s the right fit for you. 
  • If you’re nervous, bring notes with you. Often when we get in front of a doctor, we forget our symptoms or questions, so write them down beforehand or as you’re experiencing them. 
  • Don’t miss your own symptoms because you’re worried about what your doctor will say. Listen to your body and be willing to share what you’re feeling openly and honestly because it’s the only way to get good care. 

Finally, never settle for any kind of treatment you aren’t entirely comfortable with.

Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being.

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