Talk is Cheap: What Should We DO About Medical Sexism?

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewed by Maya Dusenbery who is writing a book on the issue of medical sexism. She's the one who wrote Is Medicine’s Gender Bias Killing Young Women? actually, and if you haven’t read that article, I highly recommend it. She's interested in what we're doing here at Miss•Treated because it’s the one place bringing these sorts of stories together.

At the end of the interview she said, “This is something I’m asking everyone I talk to: what do you think is the number one thing we can do to stop this problem?” She wants her book to be a call to action, so she needs to know what it should be a call to action to.

“Hmm,” I said. “That’s a great question.” I then proceeded to give a long, rambling answer about how the first step is to educate the public about this issue because most people don’t even know it’s a problem. Individual women know that they have been ignored or dismissed by their doctors, but I’ve received a number of emails from women telling me that they didn’t realize this was a systematic problem that went beyond their own issues until they read my blog.

Secondly, we need buy-in from doctors acknowledging that this is an issue and committing to educating medical school students about it. Nothing will change unless doctors change. Honestly, I don’t have much hope that a sea of doctors who have already been practicing for twenty or thirty years are going to join a paradigm shift in the way to interact with patients, but I am hopeful that new, young doctors will be excited to not only actively try to remove unconscious bias from their decision-making, but improve their diagnostic ability as a result. I’d think that committing to listening to and trusting their patients would be step one.

So we need to educate patients and doctors. Very necessary, but those actions only have potential impact down the road. Is there anything that we could do in the here and now? The only concrete advice I’ve been able to give to women on how to ensure competent care is to (1) become more educated about their own condition, (2) change doctors if the one they're seeing isn’t taking them seriously, and (3) bring a friend or family member along with them to their appointments. The first two are individual actions that the patient can take, but the third might be an area for movement. If there were healthcare professionals who were trained to accompany women to their appointments to make sure that they are treated respectfully and that their questions are answered, that could really have some immediate impact. Think of doulas in the maternity context except for ordinary office visits.

In the last month I’ve been talking to a number of people who really want to take action on this issue. We’re currently in the process of forming a nonprofit so that we can move ahead. In a few weeks we’ll be meeting to discuss what our first steps and initial goals should be. I was just thinking about some ideas and then it dawned on me: I have all of you as a resource. What do you think should be done about this issue? Do you have any ideas about the best ways to move forward?

I don’t want this blog just to be a place where we bitch about incompetent doctors. Sure there are enough of them (just as there are plenty of incompetent people in every profession), but most doctors are incredibly caring and well-meaning and certainly would be appalled at the idea that they’re giving subpar care to women. The problem is that much of what causes gender bias are unconscious assumptions that people have about women’s “hysterical” natures that are impacting doctor’s decision-making when they have to make quick determinations during a five minute office visit.

So, please, comment here with ideas or suggestions. If you agree with some of the goals I’ve laid out here, or even disagree, I’d love to hear it. You can always also email me at misstreatedblog@gmail.com. Or if you’d like to get involved in the newly forming nonprofit, you can also email me. I’d love to hear from you!