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When Doctors Downplay Women’s Health Concerns

There is an unmistakable difference between the medical treatment, advice, and guidance a female patient and a male patient receive, and almost every woman can pinpoint a time in her life when she – and her medical concerns – weren’t taken seriously by their physician. As women, it can be daunting to even speak out about our health issues when we are so accustomed to walking into a doctor’s office, hospital, or another medical setting only to feel unheard, misunderstood, or completely dismissed. 

Women face the issue of gaslighting or being told that what’s happening to them is not real and just in their heads, all the time in healthcare, and it is never okay. Gaslighting can cause you, as a patient, to question your own judgment and sanity, and it can prevent you from receiving the treatment you need when you need it the most. Part of the reason gaslighting happens is because of gender biases. Women facing actual physical or mental health conditions are frequently told that what they are experiencing is just stress or anxiety, that it will go away on its own, and that they will be fine. They are told to learn how to deal with their emotions or moods better, to not overthink. They are told that it is age-related or just their hormones when, in truth, hormones can contribute to changes in the body but they are not the root cause. This constant downplaying of women’s health concerns, delay in diagnosis – or blatant denial of medical care – isn’t just disheartening, but it destroys their chances of recovering and of living a full life. This present-day version of “female hysteria” can make the difference between good and bad decisions, between life and death. 

Until 1980, “female hysteria” was a commonly accepted medical diagnosis with its own place in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – but only for a select portion of the population: anyone with a uterus. This was the first mental disorder attributed to women, and it was used to explain conditions women were experiencing that men simply did not comprehend or relate to. For thousands of years, when a woman experienced completely legitimate symptoms such as shortness of breath, anxiety, heaviness in the abdomen, insomnia, irritability, changes in appetite or sexual drive, or fainting, she was considered to be out of control and out of her mind – to have ‘female hysteria.’ This term doesn’t exist anymore – not medically at least – but the harmful stereotypes and gender biases that are attached to it clearly do.

Another reason medical professionals downplay women’s concerns is that they have a limited understanding and knowledge of female-specific illnesses. Overall, there is less research and funding dedicated to illnesses that disproportionately affect women. One study shows that in 75 percent of the cases where an illness affected only one gender, the funding favored men. 

Women are also less likely to be prescribed painkillers than men for the same procedure, and more likely than men to wait longer in the emergency before they receive treatment. Up until 1993, women were even excluded from clinical research and trials, and continue to be underrepresented today. 

This is a huge problem because health issues present themselves differently in men and women, and this needs to be taken into account during a diagnosis. Heart disease, for example, may present classic symptoms like chest pain, which is experienced in both men and women, along with less common symptoms like back pain, shortness of breath, and indigestion that are experienced only in women. These symptoms are subtler and therefore, harder to detect – especially if a medical professional is taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach and not considering other options at all. Knowing all of this, it isn’t surprising that medical professionals often fail to recognize key symptoms in their female patients, misdiagnose them, or figure out the real issue only after it’s too late but it is – and always will be – unacceptable.

It shouldn’t require extreme pain and suffering for you to be heard, listened to, and believed. You deserve to be taken seriously today. There are countless stories of women who have lost their lives or suffered in ways they should not have because their concerns weren’t given the attention and importance they deserved. If this is something that has happened to you or to a loved one, know that you are not alone and you have rights. We can help match you up with the right legal professional for your situation – someone who will make sure your voice is always heard going forward. 

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