Eradicating the Gender Bias in Medicine

By Isabella Brady

A woman and a man enter the emergency room, suffering severe abdominal pain. The man will wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving an analgesic for the pain; the woman, an average of 65. While it may appear shocking, the rift in medical treatment has been inequitable for centuries—a disparity that burdens millions of women with unnecessary pain and a higher mortality rate.

Systemic Ignorance and Sexism:

Today, being a woman presents a serious health risk. To be honest, scientists don’t really understand women physiologically—a result of various systemic factors. One: medical studies nationally, and globally exclude biological females. Thus, women assessed by medical professionals receive treatment from doctors who spent years studying textbooks—about the male body. Differences anatomically paired with sparsely researched hormones create deviations from the ‘typical’ (aka male) symptoms. Heart attacks, chronic conditions, autoimmune diseases—all present symptoms differently in women. However, without an understanding of what these signs are, thousands of women are dismissed for potentially life-threatening symptoms. 

Sexism and personal biases are also to blame. In 2021, BMA’s sexism in medicine study reported nine out of ten female doctors experienced sexism in the workplace. If coworkers are victims of sexism professionally, what abstains the prejudiced mindset from the consulting room? Apparently, not enough; whether the bias is conscious or unconscious, 5% of women compared to 3% of men are misdiagnosed. Acknowledging the “systemic sexism [which] still exists in medicine” the World Health Organization (WHO), among a variety of vital benefactors to medical ethics have contributed nothing to improve the blatantly toxic circumstances. Without timely recognition, this profound ailment in society will corrupt the judgment of future medical advancements and victimize women globally.

“I don’t hear anything wrong”: The Story of How Thousands of Women are Dismissed

From triage to diagnosis, implicit and explicit biases in the medical industry bifurcate the treatment of biological males and females. Both female and male physicians alike statistically demonstrate a similar lack of confidence in female patients, a trend corresponding to the “77 articles show[ing] that medical professionals are more likely to dismiss women patients as too sensitive, hysterical, or as time-wasters”. Likewise, studies reveal women receive:

  • less pain medication
  • less effective pain medication
  • more antidepressant prescriptions
  • more referrals to mental health services

Although women are at a documented higher risk for illnesses within the immune system, heart disease, and a myriad of other health risks, few are diagnosed accurately. Founder of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Virginia Ladd concurs, stating the majority of women are dismissed by doctors, labeled as “too concerned with their health or [told] they’re a hypochondriac,” distinguishing many of the anxieties plaguing the female population when confronting their symptoms with physicians. The toxic mindset is perhaps most responsible for the tendency of doctors to “diagnose women with a psychological cause for their pain, rather than a physical one, compared with men”. Literally blaming women’s symptoms as ‘mental’ and in their head, the psychological doubt doctors cast on patients contributes to patient gaslighting and extended suffering—an emotional scapegoat which denies the appropriate imaging and investigation of symptoms. Unproportionally exacerbated in women of Latinx and African descent, the discrediting of symptoms is a leading cause of patient death—the populations respectively representative of 13% and 42.4% of pregnancy related mortalities in all women. 

Amputations, debilitation, and death are only a few of the significant complications women suffer due to untimely diagnoses and are unfortunately more common than the medical industry acknowledges. Meanwhile, the frequent consequences of gender prejudice in medicine leave families of the victims forlorn in the face of painful realities which could have easily been avoided. Esteemed author, Joe Fassler confides an occasion in which his wife, unknowingly suffering ovarian torsion—a medical emergency which “weighed [Rachel’s] ovary down, twisting the fallopian tube like you’d wring out a sponge.” Despite the ineffable pain Rachel experienced, the only care she received was various platitudes from unconcerned nurses as she lay “nearly crucified from pain” on a gurney in the hospital hallway for nearly two hours before being administered pain medication. In this harrowing list of experiences, genuine female victims and close relatives confess similar scenarios in which women were doubted and denied nearly to death by their health advocates.

However, it is important to note—all health workers make immense sacrifices, risk their lives amid the pandemic and save lives; the majority of the reforms must occur on an institutional level to resolve the current discrimination against women. Validating the female experience in medical schools and scientific studies proves paramount to lessening what researchers define as “thousands of deaths in women [which] could have been prevented had care been equal between the sexes.” Facing issues such as the 88% of primary care physicians and 58% of cardiologists who admittedly reported feeling unprepared to reliably diagnose and treat female patients (heart disease being the number one cause of death among females) and similar weaknesses among medical professions will strengthen protocols in medicine while validating female symptoms. Therefore, expediting equality of research of female physiology in medicine proves integral to ending the discordant practices in current medicine, and improving future medical advancements. 49.58% of the global population are females; comprehensive equality of medical treatment should be a right, not an extravagance.