By Ellie Reilly
There is a gender gap in healthcare, both in the kind of care that women and female-bodied individuals need and the manner in which they receive it. Women face unique health concerns such as pregnancy-related complications, cervical cancer, and autoimmune diseases to a greater extent than men.
It’s also becoming well-known that women experience heart attacks differently than men. What you might not have known is that doctors aren’t always conscious of this difference when diagnosing female patients. This difference in diagnostic treatment between male and female patients is known as the Yentl syndrome. What happens is that doctors attempt to diagnose female patients for signs of a heart attack using the classical model of a male heart attack and, in so doing, miss important signs. This can lead to misdiagnoses and, at worst, death.
Unfortunately, this gap in treatment doesn’t stop at heart disease. Even though women account for 91 percent of American nurses, women’s self-reported pain levels are taken less seriously in emergency rooms. This lackadaisical attitude from healthcare providers towards women’s pain is manifested in pain-related care that women receive and the time that it takes them to receive it. A study by the National Institute of Health found that women were 13 to 25 percent less likely to receive opioids for pain than male patients. Women also had to wait longer than men for an analgesic, an average of 65 minutes compared to 49 minutes for men.
These differences in treatment make healthcare experiences more difficult for women, but they can also create life-threatening situations. Take, for example, the story of Rachel, a woman who, one night, found herself in grave pain. When her husband accompanied her to the emergency room, they found that hardly anyone would come to provide timely, accurate help. It took Rachel somewhere between 90 minutes to two hours to receive pain medication and, even when she did see a doctor, she was hastily misdiagnosed with a kidney stone and mistakenly treated for that.
Instead, Rachel was suffering from ovarian torsion. A cyst on her ovary grew large enough to cause the ovary to shift in her body, twisting the fallopian tube with it. As her organ was cut off from its blood supply, it began to die, causing her unimaginable pain and swelling large enough to be seen through the skin on her abdomen. Had her doctor taken her more seriously as a patient and even given her the most cursory of examinations, she could have been treated right away.
She wasn’t treated until several hours later, when a routine scan to confirm the kidney stone diagnosis picked up on the ovarian torsion. As it stands, surgeons operated on Rachel to remove the ovary. Had they correctly diagnosed her sooner, the organ could’ve been saved, or, had Rachel waited much longer, she could’ve faced severe side effects, including abdominal infection and sepsis.
The reasons healthcare professionals don’t take women’s pain as seriously as they should are no doubt many and varied, but we can speculate about a few. First, people still believe the myths about women and the pain of childbirth. Without knowing better, many people assume that women are somehow innately equipped to handle pain and thus will be fine coping with painful situations without medical intervention. Second, and quite the opposite, women’s concerns are wrongly interpreted as attempts at attention-grabbing or baseless whining. Women are seen as less able to handle painful situations and so are more likely to complain over less.
Ultimately, Rachel’s story, and the extensively documented plight of women who seek out medical care, is a symptom of a larger issue in Western society. Although ostensibly treated as equals to their male counterparts, women consistently find themselves being dismissed, having their concerns downplayed, and struggling to be taken seriously in work environments.
The appropriate change in the healthcare world involves healthcare professionals taking women more seriously, not only as patients, but also as colleagues. More education is clearly needed, but hospital administrators must also take responsibility for female patients by staffing OB/GYN specialists in emergency rooms. Hopefully through awareness women’s experiences in healthcare can be made better.