Medicine Doesn’t Care About Women – pt. 2

Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

In part one of ‘Medicine Doesn’t Care About Women’, some women shared their experiences with medical professionals. In this article, I’m going to explore the different reasons for the experiences highlighted in part one, and why these cases aren’t one-off.

It is now widely accepted that the rate of diagnosis between males and females can differ greatly. A textbook example is the case of ‘female’ heart attacks. A woman experiencing a heart attack is less likely to get diagnosed and therefore treated, in comparison to men. This is in part due to what we consider the ‘common symptoms’ of a heart attack. Unsurprisingly, these symptoms are based on studies carried out on male patients. Doctors are taught based on these studies, the consequences are experienced by female patients. Most people think that a heart attack will involve chest pains, however, this isn’t true for everyone. Up to 30% of females suffering a heart attack experience no chest pain, according to NHS statistics. 

Babylon, a controversial new app that allows you to speak to a doctor remotely, has been criticized because entering the same symptoms for a man and woman of the same age with similar lifestyles gives you a different prognosis. For example, a 60-year-old male smoker with chest pains indicated a heart attack, recommending immediate medical care, whereas, a 60-year-old female smoker with chest pains was likely having a panic attack, according to Babylon.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

A major part of medicine that affects treatment(s) is the development of new medication. Once a new drug is developed, it goes through three phases of clinical trials. Phase 1 is when the new drug is tested on humans for the first time, which informs us about safety for human consumption; this phase also allows us to see if a particular drug has any significant side effects on ‘healthy’ participants. Despite the importance of Phase 1 of the trial, females only make up 22% of participants. One of the many excuses used to justify the exclusion of women from clinical trials has been that women have hormone cycles that can greatly affect their reactions and side effects to the drug(s). Not only does this ‘justification’ use the male body as the ‘standard’, but it also disregards the women that will be treated using these drugs with no known side effects surrounding hormone changes. It is evident that the importance of considering female bodies is disregarded as early on as the development of new drugs, no wonder treatment on a primary level isn’t any different. 

In order for medical care to improve, we need system reform, from changing the way drugs are tested to how medical students are taught about symptoms. The only way we can eradicate ‘gendered bias’ in medicine is by changing all aspects of medical care. Whilst there is little an individual can do, educating ourselves on the reality of medicine can help us lobby those in charge. If you need practical advice on how to deal with difficult doctors, I have a few tips in part one: http://cubmagazine.co.uk/2019/09/medicine-doesnt-care-about-women/ 

A few resources for understanding more about ‘Medical Bias’:

  1. John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight has an amazing segment on ‘Bias in Medicine’ that you can watch here: https://www.hbo.com/video/last-week-tonight-with-john-oliver/seasons/season-6/episodes/111-episode-170/videos/august-18-2019-bias-in-medicine.
  2. An article highlighting the difficulties a Neurologist faced in getting her Parkinson’s diagnosed: https://www.propublica.org/article/in-men-its-parkinsons-in-women-its-hysteria

A BBC article covering the many different aspects that lead to the lack of appropriate treatment for women: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180523-how-gender-bias-affects-your-healthcare

Leave a Comment