Women need to fight for accessible and fair health care

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While reproductive health has dominated the mainstream discussion about women’s health care, women face more issues than their ability to access a little pink pill case. Women still risk having their symptoms dismissed and their conditions misdiagnosed every time they go to the doctor’s office — problems that are only compounded when things like age, stress, and the physical changes of puberty are factored in.

The discrimination women face in health care is well documented. One popular study, “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain,” noted that doctors are more likely to attribute women’s symptoms to their emotional or mental state. New York Times contributor Laurie Edwards cited this study when noting that her own symptom of shortness of breath was misdiagnosed as anxiety and school stress, when the underlying cause was actually a rare genetic disease. This type of misdiagnosis is unfortunately all too common for women. Forty-five percent of female participants in one 2014 study were told by a doctor that their chronic pain was all in their head. And misdiagnoses extend beyond dismissing pain: Women are more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than their male counterparts because, according to Dr. Janice Werbinski, “gender differences just aren’t in the training.”

Beyond misdiagnosis, the field of medicine is generally built around the patriarchy. Take the way clinical trials are often focused on white men. As nursing specialists at Regis College note, “many women’s health conditions go undiagnosed and most drug trials do not include female test subjects.” Women are 30 percent more likely than men to have a stroke diagnosis missed due to a lack of awareness about how women’s symptoms differ from men’s. And if a diagnosis for any given condition isn’t immediately apparent, many doctors give women the runaround, resulting in years of uncertainty and heaps of avoidable medical bills.  

All of the above may be compounded for young women, as medical professionals can make additional assumptions about young patients that undermine their credibility and/or give the practitioners more power. Prior to a patient’s 18th birthday, her parents have the power to make medical decisions for her, like vetoing a procedure that could potentially help, and usually provide their child’s health insurance or payment for services. Doctors may try to engage parents more than these patients if they think a patient  is too young to understand or agree with what they’re saying — even in the case of teenagers or other intelligent young people capable of making their own medical decisions.

To understand why this treatment persists, It’s worth remembering how relatively new women’s access to basic health care is at all. Sanitary pads weren’t commercially available until 1921. Hysteria wasn’t eliminated from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III — and therefore technically considered a viable diagnosis — until 1980. Once again, for the people in the back: Nineteen. Eighty. Doctors could blame their female patients’ ambiguous symptoms (from sleeplessness to anxiety) on their uterus in the same year the Walkman was introduced in Japan.

Perhaps the most publicized development in women’s health happened in 1972, when birth control was legalized for unmarried women in the United States. While access to birth control has become central to our national conversation about women’s reproductive rights, talking only about the pill can restrict women from educating themselves about alternative routes that may be best for their health. For example, one woman wrote in Elle about how her endometriosis diagnosis was delayed for 17 years because her symptoms were suppressed by the pill. In the case of the Essure scandal, women experienced chronic pelvic pain, internal bleeding, organ perforation, and ectopic pregnancy after agreeing to a form of permanent birth control that was touted as a “safe, minimally invasive, half-hour, in-office procedure.” It took the FDA 14 years to issue a warning, and even that ruling is under fire for not being a strong enough response to the damage inflicted.

Ultimately, women’s health is not only currently under attack, but not even prioritized where still accessible. Our pain is dismissed and symptoms misdiagnosed. Women need to advocate for this system to change and empower ourselves to demand the best health care possible in the meantime. Women can get the most out of their medical treatment by doing the following:

●  Learn your state’s laws and use them. Each state has different laws regarding what parents can and can’t control in their minors’ care.

● Understand what doctor-patient confidentiality does and does not cover.

● Don’t be afraid to ask your health care provider questions.

● Get to understand your body and know what is normal for you so that you can better explain abnormalities to doctors. Keeping a symptom journal can make you appear more credible and give you more information.

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More articles by Tag: Discrimination, Gender bias, Reproductive rights



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