Gender-based discrimination against women has been prevalent in the medical field for thousands of years. The origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to ancient times when women were misdiagnosed with hysteria, a condition thought to be caused by spontaneous uterine movement within the female body. The Greeks referred to this condition as female madness, and attributed it to an abnormal sexual life. This belief perpetuated the idea that women exaggerated their symptoms and conditions, and in turn, led to disproportionate misdiagnoses.
Historically, biomedical research has primarily focused on male subjects, and findings were assumed to be applicable to women. Medical conditions were identified and treated based on male experiences, with little regard to how they affected women. This persistent gender disparity in medical research and education was only formally acknowledged after the passage of the Women’s Health Equity Act, three years after the National Institute of Health recognized gender disparities in disease research.
Studies show that female patients are less likely to receive proper care during hospital visits. A 1979 study asked men and women to report their health statuses in five areas: back pain, headaches, dizziness, chest pain and fatigue. The results indicated that when doctors were presented with similar complaints they gave more comprehensive checkups to men than to women.
Women are also more likely to be misdiagnosed by healthcare providers. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when women experience heart attacks, they often present atypical symptoms such as abdominal pain, indigestion, fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and palpitations. Chest pain is the most commonly reported symptom of a heart attack in men, while these symptoms in women are often attributed to other causes, such as stress or the flu. The study also found that women are more likely to be discharged from the emergency room during a heart attack, despite coronary disease being the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
Implicit biases are one of the main reasons that women’s health concerns are often not taken seriously. These biases, based on factors such as gender, race, education, class and weight are prevalent in healthcare settings. Black women in America, for example, are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared to white women. This disparity is largely attributed to healthcare inequality, underlying chronic conditions, structural racism and implicit bias. Linda Blount, the President of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, stresses that these biases are present in the exam room and affect the medical care Black women receive. Medical history was founded on these biases and the practices they inspired. For centuries, Black women were utilized as guinea pigs for experimental medical procedures without their consent, and without anesthesia. The “father of modern gynecology,” James Marion Sims, conducted his research on enslaved Black women based on his racist belief that Black people do not feel pain.
Some doctors believe that women have an enhanced ability to tolerate pain, leading them to dismiss women’s complaints. A study found that caregivers and clinicians perceive female patients’ pain as less intense, even when they report the same level of pain as male patients. They overestimate men’s pain and underestimate women’s pain in comparison to the patients’ self-reports. This bias results in numerous cases of misdiagnosis and improper treatment of women. One particularly tragic case involved a 22-year-old woman in France who called emergency services with severe abdominal pain. Despite her pleas, the operator responded, “You’ll definitely die one day, like everyone else.” After a five-hour wait, she was finally taken to the hospital where she died from multiple organ failures following a stroke.
Moreover, conditions that exclusively or predominantly affect women, such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), endometriosis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are under-researched, often misdiagnosed, and rarely considered serious until it’s almost too late. For instance, despite the known link between oral contraceptive pills and the increased risk of blood clots, safer alternatives have yet to replace them in the market.
Despite the low reported cases of blood clots caused by the AstraZeneca vaccine, many countries suspended its use when the first reports emerged. AstraZeneca reports that as of March 2021, only 37 out of 17 million recipients in the EU and UK reported blood clots. Yet a study in Australia showed that the chance of blood clots is 50 times higher for the oral contraceptive pill than it is for the AstraZeneca vaccine. This highlights the persistent gap in the medical field in providing quality care for female patients, let alone taking their health concerns seriously.
According to Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health, gender is often neglected in medical diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Clayton asserts that the lack of proper research and understanding of gender differences can harm women. Despite the gradual recognition of these inequalities in the medical community, there is still a great deal of progress to be made in terms of inclusive research.
Women can also educate themselves on their health as well as advocate for more inclusive and diverse research in the medical field. It is important for women to know that their health concerns should not be ignored, and they have the right to receive quality care. By being informed and proactive, women can take control of their health and ensure that they receive the care they deserve.
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