Chances are, you’re thinking: Feminism?! What’s that got to do with my health?
Well, more than you’d think.
Over the past century, women’s rights has gotten a long way in many countries around the world. From being able to vote to access to birth control and receiving equal wages, lots of effort has been made to close the gender gap.
But there’s one important area where there’s still work to be done: medicine.
And I’m not talking about having more female doctors in hospitals, although that of course would be great too. No, I’m referring to the fact that, until recently, the medical world wrongfully assumed that women and men were pretty much the same health wise.
Historically, women have been discouraged from taking part in clinical trials. Except for obvious areas like gynecology and breast cancer, the (white) male body has long been the standard for the human body. That meant that half of the population was overlooked when it came to developing new meds and diagnostic guidelines.
Let’s take a closer look at 5 reasons why we still need feminist medicine today.
1. Symptoms can differ by gender – and it’s costing lives
You know how on TV characters grab their chest in pain when they’re having a heart attack? It turns out that, unlike men, many women do not experience that telltale sign of a heart attack. Instead, women tend to feel pain in their neck and back, clenched jaws and even nausea during a heart attack.
Because they don’t exhibit the ‘classic signs’ of heart attack, women are significantly more likely to die from a heart attack than men. And when they do survive, women have a bigger risk of developing heart failure or a stroke than men.
Part of the reason why doctors still have a hard time recognizing heart attacks in women, is because of the lack of female test subjects. For most of history, women have been excluded from medical research. But although women are equal to men, they’re not the same biologically.
Thanks to gender differences in hormones and genetic makeup, symptoms of conditions can vary between the sexes. And not always in favor of men. Depression, for example, is often misdiagnosed in men, because they show more aggression and substance abuse than depressed women.
Learning more about how symptoms of common conditions can differ for men and women could save lives.
2. Women are underrepresented in biomedical studies
You probably take aspirin, sleeping pills or other prescribed meds without putting much thought into it. But did you know that until 1993, women of childbearing age were routinely excluded from drug trials? For decades, many medications have been exclusively tested on white men.
But a 2001 landmark study concluded that women and men respond differently to the same drug. Thanks to differences in size, body fat distribution and hormonal fluctuations, women metabolize drugs differently than men. Even something as common as taking a low-dose aspirin for heart health – which had been studied on more than 20,000 men and not one single woman – does not reduce the risk of heart attack in women, like it does in men, but it does increase the risk of stomach bleeding. This finding is especially harmful when you realize that heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women.
And it wasn’t until 2013 that the American FDA recommended new dosages for women for widely prescribed sleeping pills like Ambien, because the next-morning impairment was causing car accidents.
Although research guidelines have become more aware and inclusive, women are underrepresented in biomedical studies to this day.
3. Women needlessly suffer more pain than men
Statistically, women are much more likely to suffer from chronic pain than men. Pain conditions like migraine, fibromyalgia and abdominal pain are more common in females than males. What’s more, out of the 50 million people suffering from autoimmune disease in the United States, 80% is female.
And yet, studies show that women in pain are prescribed less pain medication than men. Research suggests that doctors are more likely to attribute symptoms of women to emotional issues than physical causes. And again, although 70% of chronic pain patients are women, 80% of chronic pain studies are conducted on men.
This gender pain gap can lead to unnecessary under-treatment of women’s pain.
4. ‘Heavy menstruation and side-effects of the pill are part of life’
Girls learn early on that menstrual cramps, mood swings and other hormonal fluctuations are a normal part of life. Menstruation is natural, but the severe symptoms some women put up with each month, are not.
Up to 20% of women experience menstrual cramping severe enough to interfere with their daily activities. What’s more, 80% of women reported they’d continued work or study, but were feeling unwell. But many females feel their painful periods are dismissed as ‘something they just have to deal with’. Research confirms that doctors, employers and society in general do not see (severe) period pain as a legitimate health issue.
What’s more, even though endometriosis affects 176 million women worldwide, it takes on average 7-8 years to receive a diagnosis. During this time, women see 3 to 5 doctors before learning about their condition.
The recent controversy over the side-effects of the ‘male pill’ is another perfect example of the health disparity between men and women. In 2016, the development of an oral contraceptive for men was stopped because the test subjects experienced side-effects like mood disorders, muscle pain and acne. However, if you check the labels of most contraceptive choices for women, you’ll see the same side-effects – and many more, including potentially life-threatening blood clots – listed.
Because of this bias, it’s important to educate yourself about what’s normal and what isn’t when it comes your monthly cycle and reproductive health.
5. The stereotype of ‘hysteric’ women (unconsciously) still exists
We talked about how the lack of female data in biomedical research hurts women’s health. But there’s another reason why women are still more likely to be dismissed, misdiagnosed and under-treated than men: (unconscious) stereotyping.
For hundreds of years, doctors diagnosed women – and only women – with hysteria, an umbrella term for ‘unexplained symptoms’ like emotional outbursts, anxiety and sexual forwardness. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the American Psychology Association dropped the ‘hysterical neurosis’ from their diagnostic manual.
So the practice of attributing women’s symptoms to psychological causes is deeply rooted in our culture. Studies confirm that women today are still more likely than men to receive anti-anxiety meds or get referred to a psychologist when they’re in pain. And in 2017, The Guardian reported how massive numbers of women were dismissed when they addressed serious concerns about the side effects of their surgery.
As a result of the Me Too-movement, a growing number of stories about medical gaslighting has made the media. More research into how women experience and express pain could help doctors to become aware of and overcome their (unconscious) bias towards women.
Thankfully, thanks to feminist medicine, steps are being taken to overcome the gender pain gap. But until then, there are some things you can do to help prevent medical bias:
- Find a family doctor you can trust and talk to openly. Your general practitioner is often the one who manages your health care and decides whether or not to refer you to specialists.
- Come prepared to medical appointments. Doctors are under lots of time pressure, so briefly outlining your situation and addressing your biggest concerns helps to get to the point quickly. You can write down your symptoms and questions to bring them to your appointment.
- If you struggle with chronic health problems, keeping a record of symptoms, medications and other treatment can help to clearly communicate your condition.
- Bring someone you trust to your doctor’s office if you don’t feel assertive enough to speak up for yourself.
- Get to know your body. That way, you can trust your own instincts when you feel something is wrong.
Have you ever experienced a medical bias towards women?
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