How to confront gender bias in your doctor’s office

Many women have experienced doctors — both male and female — dismissing legitimate medical symptoms under the umbrella of our gender. Whether it’s attributing unrelated symptoms to our menstrual cycle or dismissing pain as anxiety or “complaining,” doctors often eschew even the most basic of tests and miss textbook diagnoses. 

My health journey has come a long way since I was a naïve high school girl without any knowledge of her body. Here are some proactive measures I’ve learned that you can use to get proper diagnoses and treatment.

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Do your homework.

Some diseases look different in women than they do in men. Heart attacks, for example, usually don’t cause sudden and intense chest pain in women. Instead, women tend to experience jaw pain, upper back pain, nausea, and fatigue during a heart attack.

If you are at risk for a certain disease and aren’t having typical symptoms but are worried, it’s worth a look at Google to see if any symptoms you are having are a red flag. Once you’re armed with this knowledge, it will hopefully be harder for your doctor ignore it.

I had the quickest consultation with my doctor this week. I had been suffering from a pain in my heel for a little over a month, and as a runner I had a feeling I knew what it was. I spent a few weeks researching the symptoms of plantar fasciitis and tuning in to my body. Sure enough, my doctor was quickly able to discern that’s exactly what the problem was. I’m sure my doctor appreciated that I had taken charge of my own health, but I was also relieved that she and I didn’t have to spend a long time trying to figure out a diagnosis.

Build confidence

We all have the tendency to accept our doctors as the authority on our health. After all, our doctors are the ones who spent years in medical school and then even more years in practical training. Women especially may be particularly prone to do acquiesce to their doctors, since we often find it hard to act or portray ourselves confidently anyway.

It might be helpful to take a step back and gain a different perspective. Who has the daily experience in your body? Who has to live with the problem if something is wrong? You do. Trust yourself, and remind yourself that you deserve to have someone acknowledge your experience.

I remember my first trip to the OBGYN like it was yesterday. My mom took me there for the first time after she found me laying on the bathroom floor because of nausea-inducing, painful cramps. Menstruation was a new thing to me anyway, so I really didn’t have many answers for my OB when she asked me what was going on.

Flash forward thirteen years and I’m establishing care with a new OB. I’ve been tracking my fertility for almost three years. Which means I know for a fact that while my cycle may look normal on the outside, the regular clots during my menstrual cycle might be a cause for worry. That was the confidence I really needed.

Speak up

Unfortunately, women are often seen as too aggressive when they’re forceful. Yet if your physical symptoms are being dismissed or minimized, you should push for answers (or tests, at the very least). Don’t let your doctor get away with giving you an explanation for your symptoms that may or may not be true. Make it clear that you would like a formal diagnosis for your own piece of mind.

If that’s still not working, you can always find a different doctor.

When I started tracking my fertility, I noticed that my basal body temperature was consistently lower than the “norm”.  When I asked my doctor about it, she immediately said that there was variation in that hormone. However, I asked if she could run tests just in case and she did. Everything came back normal, but I’m glad I kept pushing.

It’s grossly unfair that women are dismissed as “hysterical females” in alarmingly large numbers, but it’s reality. However, there is increasing awareness of the gender bias in medical care, and both male and female doctors are fighting for equal treatment for female patients. I have hope that these lessons aren’t ones we’ll need to pass on to our little girls.

Johnna WilfordComment