There is a tendency to attribute women’s physical complaints to mental illness, which has its roots in the history of ‘hysteria.’
Multiple studies show that for a wide range of diseases, the diagnosis comes later in life for women than for men, according to NBC News.
On average, women received cancer diagnoses 2.5 years after men. They received diagnoses for metabolic diseases like diabetes 4.5 years later.
A Dutch study found that women were diagnosed later than men in more than 700 diseases, per Healthline. One of the few exceptions? Osteoporosis.
“The message is that the national strategies that are established need to take a difference into account. We can no longer use the ‘one size fits all’ model,” said Søren Brunak, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Copenhagen, a researcher at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, and the study’s lead author.
Women are more likely to wait longer for a health diagnosis and to be told it’s ‘all in their heads’. That can be lethal: diagnostic errors cause 40,000-80,000 deaths in the US alone. I am sure patients with #MECFS can relate with this! https://t.co/imCTTYAzoM— Derya Unutmaz, MD (@Derya_) May 31, 2018
Brunak did note that his team didn’t find the cause of the disparities. “The study does not provide a comprehensive explanation for why we see these differences, and how the reasons, in particular, divide up between germ-line genetics, environmental exposures, and modifiable lifestyle,” he said. “So we are looking into that now.”
Marjorie Jenkins, MD, says that many of the delays and misdiagnoses affecting women can be traced back to how doctors and other health professionals are educated. In 2016, she published the first national student survey of sex and gender in medical education, which showed that only 43.1% of students report that their curriculum has given them a better understanding of sex and gender medicine, and only 34.5% reported they would feel prepared to manage sex and gender difference in health care, according to WebMD.
“To this day, we are still teaching the next generation of providers unisex medicine,” says Jenkins.
“And when you look at the research, beginning with animal studies, three-quarters of the studies are done in male animals, even in diseases that predominantly affect women. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when you go to your doctor’s office, there might be some inherent, implicit bias that providers aren’t aware of, because it’s been taught to them since they were starting out.”
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Also, there is a tendency to attribute women’s physical complaints to mental illness, which has its roots in the history of ‘hysteria’, where the pain was compared to a psychological problem. Despite several advancements in the field of medicine, it is still a silent understanding that the unconscious mind can ‘produce’ physical symptoms, per the BBC.
Since women have been considered the typical patients with psychogenic symptoms, it doesn't come as a surprise that they are especially likely to find their symptoms dismissed as “all in their heads”.
It is even worse for Black women, whose needs tend to get overlooked. In fact, world-class athlete Serena Williams is a prime example of racial disparity. She had to beg the hospital staff to be treated for a grave condition that was initially dismissed.
"In the U.S., Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts. Many of these deaths are considered by experts to be preventable. Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience," she penned, in a powerful piece for ELLE.
Nicole Woitowich, Ph.D., associate director for the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University in Illinois, said that this happens mostly because the "majority of biomedical research is conducted in male cells and animals. By studying only one sex, we limit the ability to discover new therapies and treatments for both men and women.”
Meanwhile, Amy Miller, Ph.D., president, and chief executive officer of the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) said these disparities mainly exist "because we’ve ignored women’s health for so long.”
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Ghislain & Marie David de LossyDisclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.