Imagine walking into a healthcare center for a routine medical appointment only to get treated differently because of your gender, something you have totally no control over. Does that seem fair?
"I’ve had doctors act weird because my chart says something about me being into both men and women. It really makes me wonder whether or not there are evil forces out there wishing bad upon a certain group of people.”
Cases of gender bias come in many forms in every area of our modern life. It shows up in organizations when men are perceived to be better leaders or more hardworking; it shows up in education when people assume females have a lower aptitude for math and science. It is also incredibly common in medicine. In recent years, it has become more apparent in healthcare administration and has drawn a lot of interest from researchers. Now, the question is, “how does each gender experience health care differently?
We analyzed responses from 160 users in the Alike app to assess cases of gender inequality in health care. Some female users reported that they were dismissed or misdiagnosed because of the stereotypic notion of females being emotional and attention seeking
"I had a doctor write off my panic attacks/anxiety/bipolar disorder as me seeking attention/being an emotional female and a fake bisexual.”
Another user shared a similar experience:
"Consistently dismissed since I am female and heavier. I had good grades in school, so discussing ADHD issues with my doctor was dismissed. Digestion issues and told it must be stress and put on antidepressants. I ended up needing surgery. Even female doctors are dismissive, very frustrating.”
These reports are in line with a study which indicated that some doctors and mental health professionals harbor skepticism around female physical and emotional distress, often assuming that women exaggerate their symptoms or make them up entirely.
It is not an unfounded impression that women have to push longer and harder to get a medical diagnosis. In a 2015 study involving 18618 people, researchers found evidence to suggest females often waited longer to receive a diagnosis after their symptoms first appeared. A respondent shared their experience with this:
"My mom (and me) have vascular EDS, and it took my mom about 40 years to be diagnosed because doctors, even now, never believed her. I’ve also had doctors never believe me about my own pains, and most male doctors I’ve seen didn’t believe my PCOS was the cause of my weight.”
For another, it is the disparity in the timeliness of receiving health care
"My dad and I were going through very similar pain and spine issues at the same time. The difference in care was insane. It took me over six months for a doctor to even offer me an MRI, and then it took months to get all the procedures and injections I needed. My dad had an MRI, a large array of pain medication, and a procedure within a week.”
Some women also face stigma regarding their reproductive health. This stigma, alongside the lack of knowledge of the menstrual cycle, often sees doctors dismissing severe pelvic pain as cramps and recommending over-the-counter pain medication.
"I had stage four endometriosis and nobody would believe me from the time I was 18 until I was 24. I was told the pain I experienced was normal period cramps, even though I couldn’t stand up straight or leave my bed most days. I would have a cycle for months at a time, and doctors continued to tell me it was normal for years until I found a great doctor who was a woman and listened to me.”
While discussions on gender bias in healthcare mostly focus on females as they are the most marginalized, men aren’t left out of its effects either. According to an article published in the American Journal of Men’s Health, men are likely to go undiagnosed in certain health conditions due to stereotypes about masculinity.
"I have had a female doctor treat me as the dumb man that doesn’t understand his body and is just confused about the issue he has. I thankfully switched doctors last year, and I have had a much better experience.”
Transgender and non-binary individuals are also not left out of this mix. A recent report released by the Center for American Progress indicates that almost half of all Trans adults have experienced discrimination or other negative treatment from a health professional at least once
"Being AFAB, I’m never taken seriously, and everything gets blamed on my reproductive system or weight. But now that I’m out as non-binary? The transphobia is really bad. It can be really dangerous when receiving care.”
Fortunately, in recent times, there’s been a steady rise in gender-affirming healthcare to mitigate bias in healthcare toward transgender people.
Gender bias in healthcare can have overarching consequences which can affect the overall health outcome of patients. It creates mistrust towards health providers, misdiagnosis, avoidance of health care by patients, and in worst-case scenarios, may lead to the death of patients. There are some measures to fix the situation and reduce its prevalence in healthcare administration.
FIX FOR GENDER BIAS IN HEALTHCARE
While we recognize gender bias may be deep-rooted in medicine, some measures can be taken to address major concerns to expedite the move towards gender and healthcare equity.
- A Diverse Health Team: Most of the concerns raised by Alike forum users are inclined toward gender and sexuality stereotypes. Patients need attentive practitioners to whom they can comfortably speak about any health concern and relate gender-specific health challenges.
- Asking Open-Ended Questions: Health practitioners should understand that questions that elicit a limited range of responses from patients are more easily “contaminated by bias.” Open-ended questions, however, pave the way to optimal patient care. For example, clinicians can ask, “What are your concerns today? What am I missing that is important for us to talk about?”
- Introducing Reforms and Regulations: Studies show that women’s health care cost is significantly higher than men’s, even for the same or equivalent services. Therefore, reforms and regulations must be introduced to eliminate the significant cost inequities that female patients suffer.
- Revamp and Increase Training for Health Practitioners: It is important to revamp training and clinical practices to support more informed, gender-appropriate care. Bringing in practice coaches or attending training opportunities on patient experience or communication can also help clinicians become aware of their biases.
- Collecting and Analyzing Patient Feedback: Hospitals can develop data collection channels where patients can leave anonymous feedback in the aftermath of the treatment. Collecting and analyzing this data can illuminate differences in care that would otherwise go undetected.
Healthcare providers are essential in promoting health and wellness in society, but they are human and aren’t without flaws. Conscious or unconscious gender bias may steer up while attending to patients, but that doesn’t mean they are hopeless.
On the flip side, people who have experienced any form of gender bias in healthcare can find it helpful to talk about it, especially in communities of people with similar experiences. You can explore online communities like Alike Health to gain insights into others’ experiences of gender bias, find similar experiences and share yours.
The Alike App also connects people with any type of chronic condition so that they can interact with one another and get firsthand information and support from a community that listens and gets them the most .