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September 20, 2021 4 min read

If you enjoyed our read about CBD and women's health, then we'd like to invite you to continue this open, honest conversation about the struggles women face everyday when it comes to their health.

Women and Health: Sexism in Medicine

The everlasting gender biases in our medical system can have serious, and sometimes fatal, repercussions. Many conditions are oftentimes overlooked in women, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and several autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis, as detailed in a CNN Health article.

Unfortunately, not much has changed on that front. According to research, hospital workers take women's suffering less seriously spend less time treating them, and are more likely to mistake physical pain for “simply emotional distress”.

In fact, women in the emergency department who are reporting acute pains, are less likely to be given opioid painkillers than men, and if they are given them, they have to wait on average 15 minutes longer for the treatment. Such biases have been documented in academic literature and media throughout the years, yet little remains done to mitigate this disparity.

Inherent Gender Bias in Western Medicine

Maya Dusenbery, an executive editor at Feministing, in her book, “Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick”, outlined two major issues obstructing women’s medical care

  • The test gap
  • The knowledge gap

The knowledge gap can be partially attributed to the implicit bias in how doctors and other health professionals are educated, with the majority of medical concepts of diseases being rooted in knowledge of male physiology.

Due to decades of women being underrepresented in or excluded from clinical research, there is a general lack of understanding regarding women's symptoms, bodies, and disorders which disproportionately affect them.

On the trust side, it’s no secret that the notion of a woman's symptoms (let alone medically unexplained ones) being "all in her head", prevails. Even today, we hear stories of women like Naomi Musenga, who called the emergency services with severe abdominal pain and was mocked by the operator, just to have a stroke and die of multiple organ failure hours later.

The Harsh Truth on Women’s Health Issues

Sadly, it doesn’t stop with pain. According to a 2013 study, more than twice as many women as men in the UK had to contact a primary care doctor more than three times before being sent to a specialist for suspected bladder cancer, and nearly twice as many with kidney cancer.

Coronary heart disease, commonly thought of as a “man’s illness”, is actually twice as likely to affect women than breast cancer, and yet 50% of women are more likely to receive an incorrect initial diagnosiswhen experiencing a heart attack than men.

Even neurodiversity disorders like ADHD which affect both genders equally, are often undiagnosed in women due to the outdated beliefs that it primarily affects boys, or men, leading to months, if not a lifetime, of frustration, and many women - feeling hopeless and depressed.

2018 Public Health England survey reveals that out of 31% of women who experience severe reproductive health problems, only under half seek help. This highlights the pressing need for reproductive health issues to be normalised so they may be openly discussed and if possible, self-managed, rather than shunned, misunderstood, and falsely diagnosed.

Some women have to face more than just gender bias. Implicit biases on the basis of race, class, weight, sexual orientation, and trans status all affect clinical care as well. A 2012 study found that black patients were 22% less likely than whites to get any pain medication, and 29% less likely to be treated with opioids.

The Outcome for Women and their Health

The severity of the issue is best illustrated through the excerpt from Maya Dusenbery's book: “The biggest danger of having your symptoms dismissed is that once doctors believe they are ‘all in your head’, they stop searching for another explanation”, which can have grave consequences for any woman’s health.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused much anger and pain to many women around the world, who are trying to get diagnosed and receive the medical care they need for a given condition, with some eventually giving up on the system, and being forced to look for help elsewhere.

The sheer scale of the problem defies any simple solution. The best we can do is arm you with the knowledge and the confidence to listen to your own body and do what’s right for you, even if that means continuing to discuss the matter with your doctor, seeking out a second opinion or considering ‘alternative’ medicines.

  • “You’re just stressed”
  • “Everyone has these pains”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with you”
  • “You’re just drug seeking”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Don’t hesitate to reach out to us and share your experience in the comments section below, we want to help you reclaim the power over your wellbeing, whatever it means to you. 

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