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.
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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