Why Are Women’s Health Issues Always on the Backburner of Medical Attention?

It’s no secret that being a woman in today’s world comes with a unique set of difficulties, obstacles, and disparities. We are not treated fairly and equally in a range of scenarios, including respect in the workplace, equal pay, politics, and opportunities in education. And recent research is confirming something many women already know: women’s health issues are often overlooked, misunderstood, or discounted in the medical field. Our health issues are not being heard and our needs are not being prioritized. There are inherent gender disparities in terms of how women are treated by medical professionals, and it has to stop. Our health cannot be treated with such a lack of respect, and it’s time the medical field took women’s concerns seriously.

Have you ever tried to express your medical issues or pains to a doctor, only to be told “you’re doing great” or “try to take better care of yourself”? Have you ever flat out asked a medical professional for help, only to be told that the exhaustion you are feeling is normal and you should just try to rest more? It’s not normal for a doctor to not hear his or her patient when she asks for help. It’s not normal for a medical professional to just shrug off a patient’s ailments or concerns and assume it’s a normal part of being a woman. And it’s certainly not normal for that kind of care and attention to be given to women simply because they aren’t men. But sadly, while it’s in no way normal, it’s all too common. 

Women are notoriously better and handling pain than men. That’s undeniable. If you’ve never seen a man try to brave the agony of labor contractions, then we suggest you watch this video, because it is extremely enlightening. Kristen Bell “momsplains” what it feels like to give birth as only she can, and the footage is a gift that keeps on giving. 

It also proves what we have known to be true since the beginning of time – women are tough AF. We deal with period symptoms and discomfort daily. We endure pregnancy (which, by the way, is not just 9 months of bliss but more accurately 10 months of bloating and cramps and back pain and exhaustion and bodily fluids coming out when they are not supposed to) and then we deal with postpartum trauma which some might argue is worse than childbirth. We battle conditions such as endometriosis and chronic pain, all while juggling motherhood, careers, and trying to take care of ourselves. In many ways, we definitely drew the short end of the stick compared to men. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and so women are fighting for the healthcare we deserve.

Women’s Health Issues are Often Overlooked

Time and time again we are seeing that women’s health concerns, and even their physical ailments and pains, are being discounted or downplayed by medical professionals, despite those women asking for help. Women are often seen as hypochondriacs rather than getting an accurate diagnosis and the treatment they need. Physicians tend to falsely blame medical conditions and symptoms on emotional and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, rather than looking at the actual physical evidence that something might be really wrong, and it happens with women far more often than it happens with men. But why? Why are women’s health issues always on the back burner?

Sadly, the failure to properly diagnose and provide care and attention to women’s health issues is not a new phenomenon. Ten years ago, CNN reported that more often than we realize, women go to their physician with concerns about their health, and they are told their complaints are all in their heads and that they should just stop worrying. But in many of those cases, women actually have autoimmune disorders, where the immune system attacks itself, and those conditions can go undiagnosed for 10-15 years in women, despite their seeking medical attention.

According to Virginia Ladd, founder and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, “more than 40 percent of women eventually diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease have basically been told by a doctor that they’re just too concerned with their health or they’re a hypochondriac.” And that staggering statistic hasn’t improved much in the past ten years.

Another study out of the University of Pennsylvania found that women were less likely than men to receive any pain medication, and when they did receive that treatment, they waited 16 minutes longer than men to receive pain medication when they visited an emergency room. 

Women are also more likely to be told their pain is influenced by emotional distress, and 83 percent of women surveyed said they felt they had experienced gender discrimination from their health care providers, reports the NY Times

A recent report published in the British medical journal the Lancet found that the gender bias in the healthcare field actually begins at the clinical research phase of treatment. Medical research is often skewed toward the needs of men, with almost three-quarters of biomedical research papers failing to consider differences in outcome according to sex. “The evidence is clear: women are disadvantaged within science, medicine and global health,” explains Lancet executive editor Jocalyn Clark. 

It’s More Common Than You Might Think, And it Could Happen to You

Devri Velazquez is a normal, seemingly healthy woman; at least she looks healthy on the outside. But inside she knew something was wrong. She suffered pain, she had a fever that wouldn’t go down, she lost her voice, she experienced night sweats and more. Despite seeking treatment and searching for an accurate diagnosis for years, doctor after doctor told her it was in her head. Maybe she just had heavy periods; maybe she had COPD. None of their diagnoses were accurate, and she was told that maybe her symptoms weren’t as bad as she said because she had time to do her makeup and hair before her appointment. Ultimately she was diagnosed with Takayasu arteritis, a very rare but often fatal autoimmune disease that causes blood vessel inflammation. Her experience is more common than many women realize, and Devri’s best advice is to listen to your body. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you feel something, you know better than anyone else knows.” 

Even physicians recall situations where their patients did not receive the attention or care they needed from previous doctors, simply because they were women. Dr. Fiona Gupta, a neurologist, and director of wellness and health in the department of neurosurgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City notes that many of her patients were incorrectly told by prior physicians that their medical issues were actually stress-related (spoiler alert, they were not). “Many of these patients were later diagnosed with serious neurological problems, like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. They knew something was wrong but had been discounted and instructed not to trust their own intuition.” 

Women Need to Speak Up and Advocate for Themselves

If women can take anything away from this eye-opening realization that women’s health issues are often overlooked, it is that we need to speak out and look out for ourselves. We cannot depend on anyone else to protect our health in the same way that we can. Call it instinct or an innate will to survive, but women know in their gut when something is wrong. If you worry that something isn’t right or that your health is not where it should be, do not ignore those symptoms or that feeling.

Speak up. Ask for help. If you don’t like the answer you get from your physician, ask another doctor and seek a second (or third, or fourth) opinion. Ask questions to truly understand what your medical team is suggesting or how they are evaluating your symptoms. When you are sharing your concerns, be as descriptive as possible. Don’t just rate your pain or discomfort on a scale of 1-10, a method of assessing illness, which is often misleading or hard to process. Avoid vague comments and don’t discount how you feel. If you are miserable, explain how badly you feel. Be specific with your symptoms and how it is impacting your daily life. 

Do your homework ahead of time and research as much as you can to understand what your symptoms might be or what you might be dealing with. This is a bit of a catch 22, because it’s also not a great idea to go down a WebMD rabbit hole where you misdiagnose yourself and end up panicking over a condition that you don’t have. But it is important to get educated and learn anything you can so that you feel empowered to make your own medical decisions. And above all, trust yourself. When in doubt, trust your gut and prioritize your own health. 

Recent Research is Trying to Change the Face of Women’s Healthcare

If there is any silver lining in this situation, it’s that women are waking up to the gender bias occurring in the healthcare arena, and they are starting to advocate for their own health needs. In addition, society and medical professionals are starting to catch on that a change needs to occur and it needs to happen, like, yesterday.

Luckily, progress is being made, slowly but surely. 

A 2014 mandate from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) acknowledges that sex is a biological variable where medical treatment is concerned. Clinical testing of medications and treatments needs to account for both male and female needs. Meaning that clinical testing must be done on both male and female animals. Which is really good news, because a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that pain receptors in male and female mice were extremely different, proving that a) males and females feel pain differently on a cellular level, and more importantly b) they respond to pain treatment differently. Experts agree that previous preclinical and clinical trials likely yielded misleading results because of gender bias that did not take into account sex disparity. 

In a press release, Ted Price, Ph.D. and co-author of the study, admitted, “We’ve been overlooking a key variable for a long time, and I’m as guilty as everyone else.” The hope is that by focusing more on the difference in medical needs for both males and females, the findings could lead to sex-specific drugs that are more effective at managing chronic pain, according to Dr. Price.

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