4 Out of 5 Doctors…Are Wrong

Women with chronic health conditions often go from doctor to doctor before they find one who actually takes their complaints seriously. There’s no way to know how many women give up before reaching a proper diagnosis, but it stands to reason that many do. Because, really, if the last four doctors you saw told you your symptoms are psychosomatic or exaggerations or caused by depression, can they all be wrong? Well, infuriatingly, yes they can. In fact, not only is it not that uncommon for 4 out of 5 doctors to be wrong, in many instances, it's the rule.

I’ve only begun researching misogyny in the medical profession, but since I’ve started, I’ve been astounded by the number of times I’ve run across statistics that 4 out of 5 doctors are ignorant about one topic or another. Remember that trope in commercials where the TV announcer tells you that 4 out of 5 doctors agree you should use their product? The reason advertisers use this technique stems from the seemingly obvious conclusion that if 4 out of 5 doctors agree on something, it must be true.

But perhaps we’ve been too trusting of doctors all along. For instance, it has been found in study after study that physicians are biased in their treatment of women with coronary heart disease symptoms. But more shocking than the insidiousness of medical gaslighting, many doctors don’t even know basic medical facts. For instance, in a National Study of Physician Awareness and Adherence to Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Guidelines out of Columbia University, it was found that 4 out of 5 doctors—primary care physicians, OB/GYNs and even cardiologists—were unaware that more women have died each year from cardiovascular causes than men since 1984. There’s an entire generation of doctors who have begun practice since that time, and yet the message that heart disease isn’t a man’s disease hasn’t percolated through the medical community. I’ve seen public service announcements on TV about this issue; why haven’t doctors?

Another area where 4 out of 5 doctors get it wrong is in the diagnosis of autoimmune diseases—diseases that disproportionately affect women. On average it takes patients with autoimmune diseases approximately five years and five different doctors before they get a proper diagnosis. That statistic means that the first four doctors a patient visits are wrong before the fifth one finally gets the diagnosis right.

But sadly misdiagnosis isn’t only a problem for those suffering from autoimmune diseases. There are scads of disorders commonly misdiagnosed, and overall, 20% of the time doctors seriously misdiagnose fatal illnesses. Among all illnesses (including the obvious ones like pneumonia and urinary tract infections) 10-20% of the time doctors get it wrong. So not only should you not blindly trust a doctor’s medical opinion, you’re putting your life at risk if you do. A 2009 Federal Report found that 28 percent of diagnostic mistakes resulted in death or permanent disability.

So what do these statistics tell us? Well, I know what they tell me. If I or any of my family members are having strange or unsettling symptoms, I’m not going to take one doctor’s word for it if he or she brushes me off. I’m not even going to take two doctors’ words for it. Even when they may mean well, doctors are wrong far too often, and when your life is at stake, you’re a fool to blindly trust what even 4 out of 5 doctors tell you.

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