By Charlie Fletcher
They say that men rule the world. But for the vast majority of us, women are the world. Our mothers and sisters, our wives and daughters, our friends and coworkers and caretakers. They mean everything.
And yet, even though it’s women who make the world go ‘round, who give life and make it good, ironically, when it comes to receiving care, women far too often get the short end of the stick.
This is especially true when it comes to women’s health services. And it’s not just that women are more likely to be the ones to ensure their families and loved ones get the care they need rather than seeking care for themselves, but they’re also far less likely than men to receive effective and appropriate treatment when they do.
And the consequences of gender bias in the medical industry can be deadly.
What’s the problem with women’s health?
The cultural assumption is that women are the caregivers, the nurturers, far more attuned than men to their own physical needs and the needs of their loved ones. And yet, when it comes to the healthcare industry, the presumed sensitivity and astuteness suddenly become exaggerations, even hysteria.
Studies show, for instance, that women’s pain is far more likely to be ignored, downplayed, or misinterpreted than men’s. They are often made to wait longer for assessment, and they are often subject to numerous misdiagnoses before an accurate one is determined. This subjects them to ineffective and even harmful treatment, not to mention the debilitating psychological effects of being sick, in pain, and misunderstood.
The reality is that the healthcare system simply was not designed with women in mind. Historically, both medical research and medical teaching models have been based on male physiology.
And what that means is that healthcare practitioners, male and female alike, simply don’t have a complete or accurate understanding of how the female body works, especially in contradistinction to men’s. That includes a failure to understand how illness and injury might manifest in different symptoms than those experienced by men.
Case in point: heart attacks. Most women experience symptoms that are far different than the classic symptoms in men. Because of this, women having heart attacks may be sent home without a proper diagnosis, with potentially lethal consequences.
It’s not just that the medical industry is all too ready and able to wrongly conflate men’s and women’s healthcare needs, it’s also that health concerns that are specific to women simply don’t get the professional attention they deserve.
The question of women’s reproductive health and the effective care of menopausal and post-menopausal women is a perfect case in point. For decades now, the debate over hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has continued to rage.
And, for many women, the answers are not much clearer today than they were years ago. So, what millions of women are left with is a choice between a life of suffering through sometimes debilitating menopausal symptoms or living with the fear of HRT-related cancers, strokes, and blood clots, no matter how ambiguous the evidence may be, and little information on other possibilities.
Likewise, disparities in health insurance coverage, where there’s no national health service, regarding women’s reproductive health often mean that women’s options for care are significantly more limited than are men’s. That means that not only might women’s choices for contraception be significantly curtailed under the terms of her health insurance, but so too may her choices for menopause-related treatments, such as various hormone replacement therapies.
Leadership and empowerment
The simple reality is that women’s health will never take priority until significant changes are made. Female patients will never receive the informed and compassionate care they deserve until women play a much larger leadership role in the healthcare industry.
Perhaps not surprisingly, women continue to fill the majority of caretaker roles in the industry, predominating in nursing care and in entry-level and mid-level positions. In fact, nearly 80% of all healthcare workers are women. And yet only about 20% of healthcare executives are female.
With women’s voices relatively silent at the highest levels of healthcare, it’s probably not surprising that female patients also are challenged in taking control over their care. And yet, such ownership is precisely what is most needed to optimize care for all girls and women.
Consider Kelly Vero, who at 39 was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Instead of simply acquiescing to the healthcare industry, Vero devised her own individualized regimen, based on her own needs, her unique family medical history, particularly her maternal health history, and her own research.
Women are the touchstone of all our lives. They are the caregivers and nurturers. But far too often they fail to receive the kind of love and care they so readily give. This is particularly true in regard to the healthcare industry, and the consequences may be dire. The medical industry, historically, was constructed by and for men. And women have paid the price of this gender bias for centuries. Even today, women continue to be shut out of leadership roles in the medical profession, though they fill the vast majority of caregiver positions. Meanwhile, female patients continue to be misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and mistreated. They suffer long delays in treatment and the care they do receive is often inappropriate or ineffective. The inadequacy of women’s reproductive care is often especially acute, from the denial of coverage for contraception to the ineffective care of menopausal symptoms.
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Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. When not writing she is a part time wedding planner and spending time with her nephews.