Medicine doesn’t care about women*, and here’s why.
Women are less likely to be believed when they see a healthcare professional about symptoms. Women are less likely to be taken seriously when they see a doctor about pain. Women are less likely to be referred to see a specialist in a given time. Women are less likely to receive strong painkillers for the same condition/symptoms as men.
Having been a caregiver to my mum since my early teens, I’ve accompanied my mum to countless doctor and hospital visits. Even though my mum has had the same symptoms for over a decade, my mum was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease just two years ago. She’s seen General Practitioners (GPs), Orthopaedics, Pain Management/Anaesthetists, Emergency Doctors, and (finally) neurologists. Even after all this time, my mum is still uncomfortable visiting the doctor with new symptoms because she feels like she has to fight for something to be done.
Here are a few of the many stories from female friends and acquaintances who have had negative experiences with healthcare professionals.
A few years ago when I first came to the UK, I would clench my teeth in my sleep. My teeth felt like they were looser so I went to see the dentist. I told them my teeth felt loose and that they were moving, worried they would fall out. He didn’t even touch my teeth before saying, “Can you even speak English?”. He didn’t carry out any examination, but he laughed at me, he told me to go home and he told me to come back with something he could understand. I came back another day with everything written down on paper before once again he asked me if I could speak “proper English”. He didn’t do anything, just looked at it and said “Your teeth are fine”, before starting to clean them. During the whole process, I could see him holding in laughter. The experience was so bad I never went back to the dentist again.
I went to the GP about a cough I’d had for ages and I told him that I had headaches/migraines as well. So he wanted to examine me, which was fine, as he checked my breathing before telling me to turn around. Then, instead of asking me, he yanked my top up to listen to my breathing at the back. I thought to myself, what the hell? Once I sat down he saw that I was on the pill and he told me to stop taking it because of my headaches. Then he said, “Is that the reason you gained so much weight?”. I didn’t go back to him.
LXXXX has had heavy periods pretty much 24/7 with no breaks. She visited the doctor to discuss having her uterus removed, as she doesn’t want any more children. Her doctor turned to her and said she was being “a little dramatic” and refused. She had to fight to get the procedure done and eventually managed to get her tubes tied.
I find that when talking about my Cystic Fibrosis, my regular consultants understand that I know my body best and take heed to what I say as an outpatient. But, when I’m an inpatient and it’s usually HSOs I see or registrars, they tend to second guess me although I’ve lived with my condition for 20 years. I have really temperamental veins and one night the doctors wanted to take blood and the HSO didn’t believe me when I said they wouldn’t get any out of a certain arm, it took them 4 hours on and off and I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep. In addition to this, I’ve previously been admitted to A&E by ambulance because I couldn’t breathe and I knew it was CF related. I told the doctor I had the feeling before, but he said I was just having a panic attack and sent me home. Finally, to do with periods, I complained to a doctor about the severity of my pain and the length of my period. They simply said, “You probably have chlamydia. Just take some antibiotics and it’ll go in 2 weeks”, but it wasn’t chlamydia.
As this article was inspired by my mum, who’s been through hell and back to get her Parkinson’s diagnosis, I asked her what advice she would give to anybody going to the doctor about chronic pain and illness.
- Don’t be afraid to visit your doctor at the first sign of changes in your symptoms. Whether that’s pain or a bad reaction to your medication, keep your doctor updated so you have everything on record.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for tests such as blood tests or scans and if they refuse you should always ask why they don’t think you need one.
- Don’t forget to keep physical and digital records of your medical history. This is especially useful when you’re seeing a new doctor and explaining what medications/treatments you’ve tried.
- Pay for a consultation with a specialist, it’s worth saving money to have a 1hr or 2hr consultation with a specialist consultant. This can give you peace of mind if you are worried about a recent diagnosis, but again, make sure you get your money’s worth by bringing all your documents and telling them everything.
Make sure to read part 2 of this article (when it comes out) as I will be looking at female participants in medical research trials and how the systemic bias can be tackled.
*women in this article refers to those assigned female at birth