A few years ago, a chart showing symptoms of a heart attack in female patients circled around the internet.
This chart pointed out that symptoms of a heart attack present very differently in women than they do in men. For many women, this discovery raised questions, the most important one being, why had no one ever told us this before?
The lack of attention to female patients in the medical community is a longstanding problem that presents issues in a multitude of ways. For instance, women face a higher chance of not understanding potential medical conditions because doctors do not offer thorough explanations. In addition, it’s also possible that women would be misdiagnosed by medical professionals who do not take their symptoms seriously.
In her book Preventing Misdiagnosis of Women, author Elizabeth Klonoff explains that physical disorders in women are often attributed to psychiatric problems such as depression and anxiety. When women seek treatment for physical ailments, they are sometimes assumed to be exaggerating or lying about their pain and discomfort because of emotional issues. These women are then recommended to enter therapy programs that do not fix the source of their discomfort.
In 1982, Robert Hoffman led a study on this very topic, and found that 41% of patients admitted into psychiatric treatment centers had neurological or physical disorders that went undiagnosed or unchecked. Over the years there have been countless cases of women who claim that their doctors brushed their symptoms under the rug because of their gender, and as a result, they suffered serious consequences for years following the lack of accurate diagnosis.
I personally have experienced the way gender biases can affect women’s health, as I dealt with a doctor who for months claimed that I was imaging the pain that accompanied a cluster of ovarian cysts I had. Each time I visited his office and complained about the pain, he told me that it was normal to feel discomfort during my menstrual cycle and that if I stopped focusing on it so much it would go away. When I was finally able to visit a specialist, I was told that my cysts were the true cause of my pain, not my imagination.
Although there is still research being done on this issue, it’s clear that there are doctors who, though they mean well, make assumptions based off of gender that can be detrimental to their female patients. The best way to avoid the risk of misdiagnosis is to be vigilant about your own medical care, and to make sure that your doctor is listening to you and responding in a way that you feel is appropriate. Mostly importantly, if you are able to, never be afraid to ask for a second opinion.