Power, privilege and priorities: Break the bias in women's healthcare

Gender and power matter in global health.

Women comprise nearly half of the global population and have a significant influence on the well-being of their families, communities, and economy. Yet there's worldwide disparity in women’s health care and, despite best intentions, widespread gender bias still persists. 

Gender bias has a significant negative effect on medical diagnosis and the quality of healthcare women receive, leading to substantial delays in diagnosis, as well as misdiagnosis and even death. Gender bias is a result of sexism.

Patients, doctors, researchers, and administrators can all hold biased views about gender - and these views can affect how the healthcare system works and have a serious impact on health outcomes. Gender bias is a preference often based on false beliefs or generalizations.

Almost everyone holds some form of gender bias, and they may or may not be aware of it. This is due to bias being either conscious or unconscious. When a person recognizes their bias it is 'explicit' while bias that a person is unaware of is referred to as 'implicit.' Implicit bias is generally formed from the messages that people unknowingly absorb about gender throughout their lives.

Both explicit and implicit bias influence behaviors and this leads to discrimination and reinforces inequity.

Under-researched and under-diagnosed

Being female puts women at higher risk of some of the most challenging conditions.

Author Maya Dusenbery suggests many conditions impacting women are under-researched and often go undiagnosed and untreated. She made some very salient observations clear in her book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick. It's an eye-opening read for patients and health care providers alike.


 

Disbelief in women's symptoms

Gender stereotypes can impact how a doctor treats illnesses and approaches their patients. For example, the article Brave Men and Emotional Women reinforces a notion that doctors often view men with chronic pain as 'brave' or 'stoic' but view women with chronic pain as being 'emotional' or 'hysterical.' Research coted in the article also indicates that doctors are more likely to treat women’s pain as a product of a mental health condition, rather than a physical condition. A survey of physicians and dentists arrived at similar conclusions with many of these healthcare professionals believing women exaggerate their pain. 

Gaps in medical research

Inequity in medical research reinforces gender bias. For example, throughout history many scientists have believed that males made the best test subjects because they do not have menstrual cycles and cannot become pregnant. This meant that a vast amount of research has been highly limited by only involving male participants. Important biological differences between the sexes, however, can influence how diseases, drugs, and further therapies affect people. As a result, many studies from before the 1990s are flawed due to their gender bias. It is important to eradicate gender blindness in research.

Consequences of gender bias in healthcare

The overall consequence of gender bias in healthcare is that women receive worse care than they should, which increases their health inequity.

The lack of inclusivity in medical research has led to gaps in knowledge, so this means doctors know less about women's and trans health than male health. 

Additionally when doctors do not take women's symptoms seriously, this delayed diagnoses can keep women from receiving a correct diagnosis for many years.

Furthermore, when doctors do not believe their patients this also prevents people from getting help with symptom relief. For example, doctors who dismiss the severity of chronic pain might not provide adequate symptom management and provide women with suitable pain medication.

Subsequently, women who no longer trust medical professionals or organizations due to the negative situations they have experienced, may in fact avoid getting the necessary care. 

Finally, gender bias can lead to situations and actions that can increase the risk of abuse, neglect, and ultimately death.

Although policies are being implemented to help address the huge gender divide in medicine, clearly there is clearly still quite a long way to go.

Women could lead longer, healthier lives if we can break the bias.

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