Is gender bias affecting women’s medical treatment? The Zebra Mom investigates.

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Hey there, hi there, ho there!

So for awhile now I’ve been thinking about writing this piece as I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes about sexism and gender bias in medicine. I know myself that I’ve experienced some sexism in my time as a regular visitor to the GP and hospital.

The definition of bias: inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.

“When we talk about gender bias in medicine we usually either mean an unintended, but systematic neglect of either women or men, stereotyped preconceptions about the health, behavior, experiences, needs, wishes and so on, of men and women, or neglect of gender issues relevant to the topic of interest.”-Gender Bias in Medicine; Katarina Hamberg

I think the experience of sexism and gender bias that stands out to me the most, personally, is the time I went to my GP explaining I had zero libido, that it was borderline painful to have sex and that it was affecting my relationships.

The GP (who by the way was a woman) told me to just do itthat the more sex I had, the more I would want it.  Now I don’t know if I am off the mark here but I’m sure if a man went to his GP and told them that they had no libido or that it hurt to have sex that they wouldn’t be told to “just do it”.

Now, I’m not a doctor but I think I if I was, that I would at least do some blood work and if nothing showed up, refer the patient on to a Gynaecologist/Urologist for further investigation. Or you know, have a look down there to see if anything obvious stands out!

So, I wondered if there was solid, scientific evidence to suggest whether gender bias actually exists in the medical field. I have been told hundreds of stories over the years as a health journalist about women being fobbed off. Sadly, this treatment has cost women their lives.

I recently spoke at a conference in Manchester and while I was there I spoke to a GP who also suffers from hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. When I brought the subject up of whether women’s pain is taken as seriously as men’s; she responded: “Absolutely. It’s a feminist issue, for sure.”

Of course, we can’t go on anecdotal evidence. To prove something actually happens we must look at it from a scientific point of view. I contacted the amazing Gill Roddie (follow her on Snapchat: gemeroodles) to ask her for solid articles about this issue. Gill teaches Biology in third level and is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to science. Her science snaps are definitely worth the watch, so do check her out.

Does the research show that women’s pain isn’t taken as seriously as men’s? Yes, it does.

gender bias in medicine

It’s a disturbing thought, but there is a plethora of mounting evidence to back up these anecdotes. Women’s pain is taken much less seriously by doctors than men’s, fact.

This gender bias has a number of serious implications; including that women in acute and chronic pain are left to suffer for longer in hospitals. Women are more likely to be misdiagnosed with mental health problems because women are emotional” even when clinical results show their pain is very real.

Research has found that when women and men present in A&E with the same severity of abdominal pain, men wait an average of 49 minutes before being treated, while the average wait for women is 65 minutes. Similarly, women are consistently prescribed less pain-relieving medication, even when controls for weight are applied.

One reason for this blatant display of sexism may be that doctors often perceive women are being more irrational or emotional than men, and therefore see their complaints about pain as being ‘all in their head’ rather than having a physical basis.

Clinical studies have also found that doctors are more likely to think women’s pain is caused by emotional issues rather than physical causes, even in the presence of clinical tests which show their pain is real. Researchers J.Crook and E.Tunks found in their study ‘Women With Pain’ that women with chronic pain conditions are more likely to be wrongly diagnosed with mental health conditions than men and often prescribed psychotropic drugs, as doctors regularly dismiss symptoms as being a part of a mental illness.

I myself can back this up, again with anecdotal evidence. When I first went to my GP about my symptoms of pain and fatigue, I was told that I was depressed. Another GP told me my chest pains were caused by stress. I told him I wasn’t stressed at all and he said “Oh, well it must be subconscious stress.” Again, no investigations, just a script for Lexapro. We now know that my pain and fatigue symptoms were a result of my Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and the chest pain is either a subluxated rib or costrochronditis.

But this assumption also does no favours for the male population either. Men are seen as more rational and when they say they are feeling acute pain, doctors take their symptoms seriously as having physical cause rather than assuming an emotional basis. But what if it is emotional?

A 1990 study by Karen Calderone from Rhode Island University indicated that women are more likely to be given sedatives for pain, while men are given pain medication.

This indicates that women are perceived as being more ‘anxious’ than truly in pain.  This research suggests that doctors focus on returning women to a ‘calm and rational’ state rather than actually relieving their pain.

This means women are often left in severe pain for longer periods than men. Sedatives can make women appear calmer but all the while continuing to feel pain acutely. This means they stay in extreme discomfort for longer periods and this can lead to serious symptoms. Conditions may go unnoticed and undiagnosed through this type of medical treatment (or lack their of).

In Hamberg’s paper she noted that in a large variety of conditions, such as coronary artery disease, Parkinson’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, neck pain, and knee joint arthrosis, men are investigated and treated more extensively than women with the same severity of symptoms.

Personally the most disturbing thing I’ve read during my research for this article is learning that the more attractive a health care professional found their patient, the less treatment they received. This confirms what most patients with invisible conditions say, that their pain isn’t taken as seriously because we appear healthy.

In the research paper ‘Beautiful Faces in Pain’ it was found that due to this “beautiful is healthy” stereotype, doctors assume people who look ‘better’ on the outside, are healthier and subsequently require less treatment. Since sexism and patriarchy is present when it comes to hierarchy in hospital settings, men are more than likely to have senior positions. They are responsible for decision making and since the majority of men are heterosexual, it seems quite possible that women’s pain is underestimated due to the perceived attractiveness by the males responsible for their treatment.

While I’m sure most health care professionals will say that they treat each patient with the same level of care, regardless of their gender, the facts and figures say differently.

You can not deny the solid, scientific facts that show that gender bias is very real in medicine.

Sexism is seen in A&E waiting rooms and hospital wards. Gender bias and sexism is present in almost every area of society, so why would medicine be any different?

Gender bias is literally physically hurting women as well as emotionally. Imagine if those chest pains I was suffering from was something more sinister? What if it was my heart giving me a warning sign? What if I ended up in cardiac arrest? I may be presenting you with hypothetical situations here but, for many women, this has happened and sadly, it has cost them their lives. Until gender bias and sexism is rectified in medicine, women will continue to face difficulty in accessing appropriate treatment.

Until next time,

Z.M

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2 thoughts on “Is gender bias affecting women’s medical treatment? The Zebra Mom investigates.”

  1. I’m so glad to see another article on this issue. I’ve written about it a few times, but it seems like there isn’t a lot of attention on the issue. Sexism is literally killing women and giving them inferior healthcare.

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