Photography credit: Jonathon Denney
Photography credit: Jonathon Denney

I recently read a story that completely shocked me. An American woman was rushed to the emergency department at her local hospital in excruciating pain. At the time she was admitted she was unaware that she was experiencing ovarian torsion– where the ovary and fallopian tube twists. It is a medical emergency that can have severe consequences.

Unfortunately for this woman, the actions of the doctors and nurses she encountered suggested otherwise. She received patronizing and dismissive comments from some staff and was made to feel like she was over-exaggerating her pain. It wasn’t until 14 and a half hours after admission that she was finally taken into surgery, and that only happened because another doctor came on duty and the husband hassled her for answers.

Women treated differently to men

It may shock you to know that this is not a unique case. Women are regularly under-treated for abdominal pain. For example, A 2008 study looked at the treatment of 981 men and women who arrived at the ER in Philadelphia. Despite having similar pain scores, women were significantly less likely to get any kind of pain medication and were 15-23% less likely than men to be prescribed opioids.

In addition, women had to wait longer before they were given any pain medication; 65 minutes on average compared to 49 minutes for men. Hardly surprising when, as one doctor put it to ABC Los Angeles, “in training, we were taught to be on the lookout for hysterical females who come to the emergency room.”

Indeed, there are many examples that show that a gender gap exists in medical care. Did you know, for example, that doctors are less likely to diagnose a woman having a heart attack (15%), compared to a man (56%) if stress is present as a symptom alongside the “classic” heart attack symptoms?

How about that young girls are 22% less likely to be put on transplant lists compared to boys? Or that women are three times less likely to be offered joint replacements compared to men?

What about chronic illnesses?

When medical sexism occurs in cases like that, what does it mean for women suffering from chronic illnesses; conditions that often present with a wide-range of “non-specific” symptoms, such as fibromyalgia?

Where chronic illness is concerned, I am sure both men and women share frustrations with the medical system. I do personally feel that it must be challenging for men to receive diagnoses that 80-90% of the time affect women (such as fibromyalgia).

But, given the fact that these illnesses do disproportionately affect women, you would think that doctors would be better able to diagnose them in females. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true.

Take me for example. It took many doctors and over two years for me to receive a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. This is typical for most. Along the way, I was made to feel like it was “all in my head” and at one point I was even given anti-depressants by a doctor who did not know me and had spoken to me for all of ten minutes.

I wasn’t even told I was being prescribed anti-depressants, rather that the prescription was for “something that would help me to feel better”. How patronising is that? I had to google the name of the drug to discover what it was because at that time I didn’t have the courage to question the doctor.

Apparently, doctors struggle to know the difference between tears of frustration at not being able to do the things I want to do (due to suffering from intolerable pain) and the tears of depression.

Photography credit: Léa Dubedout
Photography credit: Léa Dubedout

Women not taken seriously by doctors

I am not alone in what I experienced and I personally feel that it’s an injustice that women are often suffering for years undiagnosed. What is worse is that many women can be labelled as “chronic complainers” in the early stages of their illness or misdiagnosed with anxiety, depression or mood disorders. Basically, many women are not being taken seriously by doctors.

Take autoimmune conditions as another example (which affect three times more women than men). It takes patients with an autoimmune disease up to 4.6 years and 5 doctors to receive a proper diagnosis. Yes, many of these illnesses are difficult to diagnose and they have overlapping symptoms with other conditions but this should not happen.

Going back to conditions such as fibromyalgia, when it comes to treatment of chronic pain, the National Pain Report found that over 90% of women felt that the health care system discriminates against female patients. If we feel that is the case, what options does it leave us?

What can you do if you feel dismissed by your doctor?

If you feel like your doctor is not taking you seriously, you must persist in finding one that will. Like me, it is not uncommon to see many doctors before you discover one who is understanding and willing to work with you to find the cause of your problems. It’s a frustrating process but you must advocate for your own healthcare.

In addition, when you go to an appointment take someone with you. It sounds terrible but I always get better results when my mum or husband is with me compared to visiting the doctor alone.

When you do get a diagnosis it’s also important to become knowledgeable about your own condition and to educate yourself about potential treatments. I’ve found this to be particularly important in my own case.

In the UK, care of fibromyalgia patients is typically undertaken by GPs. Although we need professional medical care, it’s important to realise that GPs are not specialists (though of course each will have a particular area of interest and you may be lucky in that regard).

I don’t mean any disrespect by that statement and I have a lot of sympathy for GPs as it’s most definitely a difficult job and they are under many constraints. GPs need to know a little about a lot (as they are the gatekeepers of medical care if you like) and that means they may not be best placed to help you manage a chronic condition.

Personally, the improvements I have made with my own health have happened off my own back. I did my own research, experimented (a lot) and finally found a combination of things that work for me.

While all that experimenting was going on, I also persisted with my GP and was thankfully referred to a great pain service and now have the support of a physio too. (As a side note, that last statement in itself says a lot about the medical system too as I ended up at a pain clinic when my GP referred me to a specialist ME/CFS nurse).

There does need to be a change in the medical community though and patients shouldn’t have to be going to such lengths to be taken seriously by doctors. To that end, writer Katie Ernst has started a blog called Miss•Treated to share stories of women who have been dismissed by doctors.

It was Katie who wrote to me and brought the concept of medical sexism to my attention. If you feel like you can relate to what I have written, please consider sharing your story on Katie’s blog. The more evidence we have of medical sexism, the more power we have to do something about it.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Let me know in the comments below.

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10 Comments

  1. I’m sure I’ve told you before that one of my best friends has ME, but regardless – I’ve just sent her this post. I suspect there’s lots in here that resonates.

    x

    • As much as I hope it won’t, I am going to bet that it will sadly. Thanks for sharing x

  2. Urgh, my sis was in hospital with serious abdominal pain last year…I told them and told them about the dangers of her condition. They chose not to listen and not to verify what I was telling them, and if not for a VERY flukey occurrence she would have died from the resulting bowel rupture! I GAVE THEM A LIST OF PEOPLE THEY COULD FACT CHECK WITH…But they knew better…

    • Oh my goodness, that is such a scary experience for you both. I can’t imagine the frustration you must have been feeling to be ignored like that. I hope your sister is doing well now?

  3. Wow! I’ve been through some tough situations & frustrations with the medical profession (as well as receiving some excellent care) but I had never thought that seism could be a contributing factor! The only time I have seen a difference in the sexes is with gyne issues. I’ve found as a general that men are far more understanding & willing to listen to symptoms & pain scores, where as the majority of women seem to think that symptoms are being exaggerated because their own personal experiences aren’t in the same league so they can’t empathise. Even in examinations I’ve found men to be gentler! & more sensitive. Xx

    Tania | When Tania Talks

    • I can imagine with your diagnoses that you have had your fair share of difficult encounters with doctors (though it seems like the word unfair would be the better suited term for that saying in this circumstance!!). Medical sexism is not something I really thought about before this post if I am honest. I was quite shocked on reading some of the statistics. That’s a really interesting point you make about male v female doctors. I totally get what you mean there. Perhaps it is something to keep in mind as I guess many women are more comfortable with a female doctor when perhaps that’s not always best x

  4. I’m currently dealing with with what may end up as a complaint against my rheumy. For 18 months she’s been dismissive of my fatigue and dismissive of my Fibro (which she diagnosed!)

    My GP has been good, and she’s diagnosed me with ME which has been confirmed and I’ve got a referral to a consultant for a course to help manage fatigue at last.

    But – I’ve been failed by four dmards, and now Humira. When I saw my rheumy last week she basically said if Humira didn’t work then it must all be fibro and she’s stopping treating my RA – which I definitely have! I came away shell shocked, as far as I’m concerned this is bordering on negligence.

    So I’m spending this week gathering latest reports etc on RA along with NICE guidelines for treatment to take to the GP. (it doesn’t help my usual GP who knows me is off on long term sickness). The rheumy even told me my depression was causing the pain which is BS, but of course then tears welled up and just confirmed her thinking!

    I spent two days in tears, but now I’m so cross I could scream. I’m absolutely not prepared to accept this…. Watch this space

    • I am so sorry to hear you are having problems with your rheumy. This must all be so stressful for you. It’s appalling that you are being treated this way and that she isn’t taking the diagnoses she gave seriously– boggles my mind! I’m pleased for you that you have a supportive and understanding GP. I can totally understand why you got upset, I’d be the exact same. It’s frustrating that everything gets blamed on mental illness. I really hope you get a positive outcome.

  5. Thank you so much for writing about this! Hundreds of thousands of women have gone through the same thing (including myself). A friend of mine and I actually started a petition to stop this from happening. If anyone is interested in signing and sharing it, I will put the link to it in the ‘website’ section, so you should be able to just click on my name and go to it. Keep up the great posts!

    • I am sorry to hear you have gone through this Jaime and thank you for sharing your petition.

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