Millions of women suffer every day due to bias in the medical field. (Photo via Unsplash)
After many months of appointments that have gone nowhere, I’ve got a bone to pick with the gender bias in healthcare. A few months ago I was talking to my physician about my current diagnosis theory when he told me, “No, I don’t think so. After all, it would be a shame if you had that, since you are such a smart and pretty girl.”
I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that my insides couldn’t care less about how I look. He later suggested that I try losing some weight, despite me being smaller than I’d ever been before. I left that appointment feeling frustrated, but it wasn’t really anything that I haven’t already experienced.
Beauty standards in America are often equated with health. Therefore, going to the doctor as a woman can be a minefield. I, like many other women, try to look presentable enough to be in public, but not too presentable, lest the healthcare provider dismiss my symptoms.
You see, studies, such as “Are physicians' ratings of pain affected by patients' physical attractiveness?” published in the journal Soc Sci Med in 1990, shows that women that are perceived to be unattractive are also thought to have worse health, while women that are perceived to be attractive are thought to be experiencing less pain and distress. The judgement of women’s appearances being equated to their health is just the beginning.
There are countless stories of women going to the doctor and being told to lose weight, only to be diagnosed with serious conditions years later that could have been dealt with sooner. In a study published in the journal “Basic and Applied Social Psychology” in 2014, 53 percent of all women said they had been shamed by a physician, compared to 38 percent of men. They also found that their weight and sex lives were the two most common sources of the shaming.
This shaming of women comes with serious consequences, as doctors are less likely to detect life-threatening health issues early enough because they are dismissive of obese and overweight patient’s concerns. It can also lead to women being less likely to even go to the doctor in the first place. In fact, in a 2016 nationwide survey conducted by Allison Shelley, 45 percent of women said they’d somewhat commonly cancelled or postponed a doctor’s appointment because they wanted to drop a few pounds first.
Bias in medicine goes far beyond just fat-shaming women; doctors also love to tell women that they are being dramatic and that it’s all in their head. In a study published in the US Association for the Study of Pain’s journal “The Journal of Pain” on March 5 of this year, they found that perceivers under-estimated female patients’ pain compared with males’ pain and were more likely to prescribe psychotherapy for female patients in situations where they prescribed pain medicine to male patients.
One area of medicine where these delayed diagnoses are especially prevalent is in cardiovascular diseases. According to a study published in 2010 in “Netherlands Heart Journal,” women are diagnosed with heart disease 7 to 10 years later than men, on average.
Further than that, there are even gender biases in health research. In an article published this past July in the “Journal of Women’s Health” they found that, “US National Institute of Health applies a disproportionate share of its resources to diseases that affect primarily men, at the expense of those that affect primarily women.” Not only is there less likely to be funding for women-majority diseases, but women are also less likely to be included in clinical trials and other medical studies in the first place.
This is not even mentioning the role that the menstrual cycle plays in all of this. Period-having people are more likely to have serious symptoms, such as painful periods and severe abdominal pain, be written off as “normal” when they are actually symptoms of potentially fatal health conditions. On top of that, there is a lack of study and education on menstrual cycles that leads to misinformation and preconceived notions that paint periods as unclean or even toxic. Hell, as a woman who has had periods for 10 years now, I am still finding out new things about them.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to not talk about how race plays a part in this as well. The World Health Organization estimates that black women are three to four times more likely to die due to pregnancy and pregnancy complications compared to white women. Dr. Keisha Ray, assistant professor at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at the University of Texas, found that women of color also receive less medical intervention for pain management and cardiovascular care, which are issues that I’ve already discussed previously.
Another example of this bias is seen in breast cancer patients. Although black women are less likely to develop breast cancer, they are 40% more likely to die from it than white women, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. On top of all of this, women of color are less likely to receive preventative care and/or different treatment options due to the lack of diversity in clinical trials.
In conclusion, women deserve better. This is unfortunately still true in many areas, but as I’ve shown here healthcare is a field where bias can be deadly. All those years of med school and they don’t teach you to care about everyone? Interesting...