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Why being a woman can still be a disadvantage in healthcare

Why being a woman can still be a disadvantage in healthcare
melanie klenk

Today, on International Women’s Day, we are asked to imagine a gender-equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. I have to be honest that I find that really hard to imagine. Gender inequalities in healthcare still are a persistent problem in many countries around the world and women often face unique challenges in accessing healthcare services and receiving appropriate care.

Women have historically been disadvantaged in medical treatment. The factors include biases in medical research, stereotypes held by healthcare providers, and systemic issues within the healthcare system itself. To overcome this, we need to ask a few critical questions whenever we hear/talk/read/actively engage in women’s health. Let’s start with the following three questions.

1. Has this medical treatment been thoroughly tested in female bodies?

The gender data gap, the underrepresentation of women in medical research, is real. Historically, most medical research has been conducted on male subjects as the “male norm” and the findings from this research have been generalised to women as well. Even in female-prevalent diseases like autoimmune conditions, studies were predominantly conducted in men, from the early animal studies to large phase III trials. It has been proven over the last 20 years that male and female bodies differ down to a cellular level. Assuming women are just smaller than men is entirely inaccurate. Think for instance of heart attack treatment. Women are 50% more likely to receive a wrong initial diagnosis than their male counterparts, increasing the risk of death by as much as 70%.

2. Are healthcare professionals providing the same quality of care to women?

Stereotypes and biases about women from healthcare providers can impact the quality of care they receive. Women are more likely to have their pain dismissed or minimised by doctors, or may be seen as overly emotional or hysterical when discussing their symptoms. Being told that severe symptoms are “all in your head” is much more common for women than for men and often leads to delayed diagnosis and other severe health consequences for women. Endometriosis for example affects 10% of all women, yet it still takes an average of 8-10 years to be diagnosed. More often than not, women are being told by their healthcare professionals that their debilitating pains due to this systemic condition are normal and have to be endured.

3. Do women have the same access to healthcare than men?

Additionally, systemic issues within the healthcare system can also lead to disadvantages for women. Women may have more difficulty accessing healthcare due to financial or logistical barriers, and may be more likely to have their healthcare needs prioritised behind those of male patients or other family members. It’s 2023 and women still face challenges in accessing reproductive healthcare, including birth control and abortion services in many countries worldwide. Even worse, in some countries the legal rights of women over their bodies are being reversed again. And it’s happening right before our eyes.  

Overall, these factors can lead to significant disparities in healthcare for women, including delays in diagnosis, lower quality of care, and worse health outcomes. In communications, many might argue that health equity is considered one of the more trending topics in online and offline conversations, but it’s certainly not trending enough (and not just for women). To #EmbraceEquity, we must ensure that women also receive equitable access to high-quality healthcare. It is important we keep the conversations going, address these issues and be vocal about demanding change.

Pause for women’s health – read Melanie’s series on women’s healthcare and the menopause

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