A man goes to his doctor with these complaints: blurry vision, personality changes, memory loss, and headache. What do you think happens? On average, he’s referred to a neurologist for an MRI. What happens when a woman presents with these same symptoms? She's accused of being "attention seeking," overly stressed, or possibly even on drugs and is told to go home and put her feet up.
Sound crazy? Well, it is, but it's also backed up by the data in new research from The Brain Tumor Charity. In their study Finding Myself In Your Hands, it was found that women wait significantly more time between the onset of their brain tumor symptoms and diagnosis and are more likely to have to see five or more doctors before diagnosis. One woman said that she was left undiagnosed for three years and was accused of being "attention seeking" or on illegal drugs when she went to the hospital for her symptoms.
These disparities in treatment of women with brain tumors no doubt lead to women’s deaths, but if only this sort of disparate treatment was limited to those women. In research out of the US, Canada and Switzerland, it was found that when women came to the ER presenting with cardiac symptoms, they waited significantly longer than men before receiving care. In part because of this difference in treatment, women are more likely to die of their cardiac symptoms, especially younger women.
Why are women often given subpar medical care? It’s a combination of factors. First, doctors routinely underestimate the likelihood of women dying from various diseases. For instance, even though more women have died of heart disease than men since 1984, fewer than 1 in 5 doctors—including primary care doctors, cardiologists and OB/GYNs—knew this in a recent survey. Take that in for a moment. There’s been an entire generation of doctors who have been trained since 1984, and yet far fewer than half of them know that heart disease is not a man’s disease.
Ignorance is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Doctors are more likely to believe that women’s symptoms are caused by stress or some other psychogenic cause whereas doctors tend to believe that men’s symptoms are caused by organic illness. To put it bluntly, doctors are more likely to believe that a woman presenting with strange symptoms is crazy whereas they see a man with the same symptoms as clearly in medical distress. Or as Cardiologist Dr. Splaver put it when describing why so many women with chest pain are not taken seriously in an interview with ABC Los Angeles, “In training, we were taught to be on the lookout for hysterical females who come to the emergency room.”
So what can be done about this? First of all, doctors need to stop viewing women’s health issues through the lens of what is referred to as “bikini medicine.” Women are not just their pelvises or their breasts and they have legitimate health issues that go beyond those areas. Moreover, doctors need to stop assuming that if a woman has strange symptoms, she’s crazy or overly stressed out. Untold thousands of women die each year from doctors neglecting their symptoms due to these sexist stereotypes. Before the medical profession can do a competent job for its female patients, first they need to heal themselves.