The Ugly Truth About Gender Bias in Medicine
THE UGLY TRUTH ABOUT GENDER BIAS IN MEDICINE
IMAGE VIA @ELLAMAYPHOTO /INSTAGRAM
WORDS BY LAUREN WISGARD
In order to receive effective medical treatment, we need our doctors to listen to our concerns and symptoms without prejudice. It is not too high of an expectation for fair and impartial treatment, regardless of our differentiating factors, such as gender. Unfortunately, medicine carries the baggage of a complicated history, particularly in its treatment of women’s issues and diseases. I did not use the word history lightly, the way male and female gender has been treated distinctly in medical practice goes all the way back to ancient Greece.
The philosopher Aristotle, said in the third century BCE that the female body is the inverse of the male, our genitalia “turn’d outside in”. So eloquently put. While this was probably a groundbreaking observation for the time, what it created was a marking of the anatomical difference in men and women as something deficient or flawed. However, there was one saving grace for women as history has always valued the women’s uterus as having high social value due to its ability to bear new life. This key difference in male and female biology has shaped medicine in a way that connects and validates the social and cultural expectation of women. The medical myths surrounding gender roles and behaviours are so entrenched in medicine that what was historically a valued aspect of the female body is now a bias that can significantly impact the treatment and diagnosis of all people who identify as female. While men might present with symptoms that are regarded as legitimate and worth exploring, women’s concerns are often dismissed as hysteria and “simply hormonal”. In other words, women often have the burden of having to prove the legitimacy of their pain and symptoms.
A 2021 Australia Talks National Survey found that one in three women feel their health concerns have been dismissed by their health professional. The survey also found that women were twice as likely as men to feel dismissed by their doctor. What is apparent is that women’s health is too often been considered secondary to male medical research, even though it involves roughly half the population. The consequence of under researching women’s health issues is that women are put at higher risk for a misdiagnosis. Some common examples of the gender gap in medicine are the treatment of menopause, miscarriage care, PCOS and endometriosis. All these reproductive issues have been minimised and often dismissed, and the medical progress in these fields falls significantly behind other medical research. The gender gap in medicine also extends to issues such as heart disease. The diagnosis method for a heart attack favours the male biology; women often have symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain, which are often overlooked in favour of the male-favouring common symptoms of chest pain. On average, women are diagnosed with heart disease seven to ten years later than men. By the time their symptoms are acknowledged, other chronic diseases are often prevalent.
Dr Amy Vassallo, a research fellow in the Global Women’s Health Program at the George Institute, spoke to SBS on this topic. She said that data blindness in women’s health is the cause of the failings in these important areas, as data is collected from men and generalised to women. She said, “There’s a data blindness issue here…and there could be biological explanations for observed differences in outcomes between men and women but there also could be a sociological or sociocultural explanations for these differences [including] good old fashioned gender bias in the way people are treated.”
This issue is broad and complex, but the crux of it is that the medical industry’s overarching failure to appreciate and study the differences between the sexes compromises the quality of care. However, in my opinion, while the issue is complex the answer is plain and simple; don’t assume women are hysterical. Because the reality is, often women are more attuned to their bodies and know when something is wrong. Women are suffering unnecessarily at the hands of the gender bias in medicine, and it needs to stop.