Sexism in healthcare

Opinion: by Sharni Hastings

Imagine going to the doctor because you had been experiencing chronic migraines and being told you were thinking about life too much. Migraines, for those who don’t know, are headaches that are excruciatingly painful to the point of blacking out, vomiting, and even loss of physical movement.

That’s just one of the horrible experiences I’ve had within the Australian healthcare system as a woman, and research suggests I am not alone.

Women are reporting extreme levels of pain at their doctors’ offices and in emergency rooms, but instead of being treated appropriately they are usually given the mildest forms of treatment, ignored or misdiagnosed altogether, according to a study published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics.

It took three years and countless visits to different doctors in two different states for me to be diagnosed with chronic migraines. Finally, I had an answer. I was given the appropriate medications to allow me to function in the world as a regular human being again. It took two years on top of that for any doctor to suggest taking a look at my brain through an MRI to see if I, the daughter of a woman who suffered from multiple brain tumours, had any dark masses in my brain tissue. The MRI was three years ago. I’m 25 now, and I’m fed up.

Women have long been hinting at gender bias in the healthcare industry, whether that has to do with the tampon tax, the large number of contraceptive methods offered compared to men, and let’s not even begin with wage disparities.

But more and more women are speaking up about the way they are treated in the healthcare industry, particularly by general practitioners, emergency room doctors, and nurses.

And, let me tell you – it’s not pretty.

Many women are misdiagnosed with pre-menstrual symptoms by doctors in emergency rooms after being rushed there by their concerned parents, partners and friends due to excessive vomiting, vaginal bleeding and loss of consciousness. Some were offered ibuprofen; others were sent home immediately with no help, still doubled over in pain. So – was it PMS? Was it that dreaded Aunt Flo? Did the ibuprofen help?

No, no and no. These women were experiencing the pain associated with ruptured ovarian cysts, sometimes two or three at a time, sometimes a number on each ovary. Throughout their lives, many of these sufferers have had to deal with their pain being swept under the rug time and time again by people whose job it is to help others because nobody will take their cries seriously.

It can take up to 10 years to be diagnosed with endometriosis, a chronic disease that affects one in 10 women of reproductive age with immense pelvic and abdominal pain and excessive vaginal bleeding. Similar studies have also reported that less than 50 per cent of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome are appropriately diagnosed, even though they suffer from the textbook symptoms of the disorder. This means that large proportions of our female society are living in pain and not being heard by their doctors when they ask for help.

But that’s just the beginning. Recently, it has been revealed that women are almost twice as likely as men to die in the years after suffering a heart attack and are three times more likely to die from a heart attack full-stop. Why? Because the medical profession is still yet to recognise that women experience vastly different symptoms and as a result, women are often told they are only suffering from acid reflux or gastrointestinal issues due to poor diet choices.

The Women’s Health Research Institute reports that these women also waited much longer in the emergency room than their male counterparts who were experiencing similar symptoms. Funnily enough, a study by the American Heart Association found that when these women were finally attended to by doctors, they were generally offered less aggressive or adequate forms of treatment for cardiovascular concerns and diabetes.

How is this acceptable? Mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers are suffering and dying because “experts” refuse to listen to them and refuse to pay them any mind.

Critics of the gender bias in healthcare state that women are perceived as generally more irrational than men, and so it makes sense that they are taken less seriously. Research has revealed that healthcare professionals tend to view a lot of women’s pain as purely emotional, rather than physical. This view seems to date back to the middle ages when women were being diagnosed with hysteria for simple things like being irritable, suffering from insomnia and experiencing abdominal bloat. Did I mention that these women were treated with a “good old hose-down” by doctors with high-pressure cold water? I wish I was kidding.

Surely, it’s time for a shift in the mindset of the healthcare industry. Some aspects of healthcare available for women is not good enough. It has never been good enough. We’re not asking for much other than being treated the same as men when we come into doctors’ offices and emergency rooms with concerns. How many hose-downs do women need to endure to be taken seriously?

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