Biological differences between sexes mean we don’t all experience illness in the same way. But does the medical system treat women with less care and urgency than men? We’re examining the idea that medical sexism is responsible for higher mortality rates, longer treatment times, and slower medical advances for women.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Pain and pressure in the chest is usually recognized as a heart attack symptom, but women are more likely to experience less specific symptoms, like:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the neck, back, or jaw
Even if these symptoms are severe or come on suddenly, it’s easier for both women and their doctors to brush them off as something less serious than a heart attack.
Men are more likely to have heart attacks than women, especially in middle age. But the women who have heart attacks have worse survival rates in the year following the event. It could be that cardiac disease is simply more difficult to treat in women, but there’s also evidence of medical bias:
- After a heart attack, women are less likely to be given aspirin to prevent blood clots or prescribed statins to help lower cholesterol.
- In many countries, including the US, Germany, and the UK, women are less likely to have procedures like bypass surgery after a serious heart attack.
Up until very recently, medical research has featured mostly male test subjects. This means the way we understand diseases and develop treatments has been based on male bodies.
- From 1977–1993, FDA guidelines recommended that women of childbearing age not be included in clinical trials. Research during these years was based almost entirely on male physiology.
- Although human studies now feature a more diverse group of subjects, animal research is still mostly done on males.
- Differences in body composition, hormones, and organ size mean that women often metabolize drugs differently than men. When drugs are developed based on male bodies, women are more likely to experience unwanted side effects.
Misdiagnosis and Misunderstanding
Historically, women’s symptoms haven’t been believed by the medical community. Up until the early 20th century, women with unexplained symptoms were diagnosed with “hysteria”, and sometimes even institutionalized. Today, the tendency to downplay women’s illness continues in more subtle ways:
- Women’s symptoms are still less likely to be trusted by medical professionals. On average, women with abdominal pain have to wait longer in emergency departments before receiving opioids for pain relief.
- Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus affect more women than men, and typically take years to be properly diagnosed.
- Diseases that predominantly affect women, like fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalopathy, are the subject of medical uncertainty. For many women with these conditions, psychological interventions are suggested before pain medication.
Solving Medical Sexism
Most medical professionals wouldn’t consciously decide to treat women and their symptoms less seriously. So what can be done to change biased systems?
One explanation for why men receive treatment and medication faster in ER settings is that they’re more likely to directly ask for pain relief. It might be unrealistic to expect someone in pain or distress to be more aggressive and direct, but it’s true that patients are usually their own best advocates.
Checklist procedures can also help remove bias from how doctors make decisions. When researchers at Johns Hopkins noticed more female patients were dying from preventable blood clots, they developed a checklist procedure that drastically reduced the complication in all patients. Checklists also help eliminate bias based on a patient’s race, culture, or age.
Prescription Discounts for Women and Men
Women and men might be treated differently in some medical settings, but high drug prices affect everyone. At Canadian Med Center, popular brand-name drugs are available at discounts of up to 80%. Click here to search for your prescriptions, and you can skip the pharmacy line with medications delivered right to your door.
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