Even though we are already two decades into this new century, and women’s healthcare has improved significantly over the past several years, it still, unfortunately, falls short when compared to men’s healthcare. In the past, many female-exclusive health complaints were typically dismissed as nothing more than just “vapors” or “hysteria.” Sadly, this prejudice still exists, making women’s healthcare continue to lag behind men’s healthcare.
While we have certainly improved in how we treat our female patients, however, there is still quite a way to go before the playing field is truly leveled and women are treated as equals in the exam room. This is, of course, wholly unacceptable. One way we can help improve the quality of care is to not see women’s health concerns as gendered, but rather, as a human health concern that just so happens to affect women exclusively.
Identifying Gendered Health Concerns
Interestingly enough, some of the more common issues that women face are not necessarily gendered. Instead, a stigma surrounding them presents the idea that they affect only women or men. This could not be further from the truth, though. Many very serious health concerns can affect both men and women equally — or they may affect a woman more frequently than they may affect a man.
Take, for instance, heart disease. Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death for women, tragically claiming nearly 300,000 lives each year. While men do also suffer and can perish from it, much of the media portrayal about identifying this deadly illness tends to be skewed toward the male symptoms (such as chest pain, tightening, and shortness of breath) of the disease.
Many women show zero symptoms of heart disease, which means that they may not know that they have it until they suffer from a heart attack. Others may have angina (pain in the chest). Some may experience pain in the neck, throat, or upper abdomen. Nausea and vomiting can also indicate the presence of heart disease. Fatigue, which often gets dismissed when it is a woman’s complaint, can also point to heart disease.
Other concerns that can often be gendered may include breast cancer, hair loss, domestic violence, and reproductive disorders. While men can and do develop breast cancer, it is a predominantly female issue and affects them disproportionately more. Alopecia also affects both men and women, causing serious harm to the patient’s self-esteem. Domestic violence is also not a gendered issue, and there are simply not enough resources or compassion for victims of this tragic abuse.
That said, gynecological health is fairly specific to those who were biologically born as women. Despite their advanced training, though, many doctors are quick to disregard these complaints, which tends to cause these female patients to hesitate before seeking treatment in the future. In turn, it can cause critical delays in them seeking out and getting much-needed healthcare for their reproductive systems.
A doctor should not dismiss a woman’s complaints about menstrual cramps any more than he should dismiss a man’s complaints about lower abdominal pain. Knowing how to diagnose and treat a wide range of female-specific health concerns — whether it’s simply knowing how to diagnose vaginosis or even how to reduce premenstrual migraines — is just as important as knowing how to identify testicular torsion or prostate cancer.
Eliminating the One-Size-Fits-All Approach
There are several biological differences between male and female patients, but that does not mean that one type of patient is better than the other. Both men and women are equally worthy of quality care when being treated by their doctors, and it is especially important to teach providers how to identify and eliminate their own biases when examining a patient.
Ideally, this should begin during their medical training. Medical students should be given the resources to know how to treat patients of both sexes, and the same amount of coursework should be provided for these concerns. Furthermore, these students should be taught how to recognize their own inherent prejudices and learn how to not succumb to them.
Finally, continuing education should also be provided to these doctors, allowing them to continue to learn more about developing science and research in women’s healthcare. By taking the time to carefully train doctors about these unique challenges — and consistently emphasizing the value of providing compassionate care to all of their patients — we can finally start to address the unfair discrimination that female patients still face in this modern era.