These horrifying stories of illness are proof that medicine is biased against women


On Friday, writer Sarah Gailey wrote on Twitter that she was in pain.

The writer, who tweets using the handle @gaileyfrey, detailed her troubling experiences with doctors in the past.

For Gailey, the problem was clear: Women’s pain just isn’t taken seriously. Gailey’s not the first to reach that conclusion, and she’s quick to point out two articles that explore the systemic misogyny that prevents women from getting the healthcare we need.

Gailey described an especially horrifying incident, where a wrong diagnosis could have been fatal:

…and wrote about how the experience has colored future doctor visits:

…and how absurd it is that relatively, her experience with doctors is likely positive:

Gailey’s story struck a nerve, and women quickly started sharing stories of their own misdiagnosis and run-ins with neglectful physicians. One woman wrote about being prematurely sent home from the emergency room because doctor confused a miscarriage with a period:

Another recalled when, in her teens, a doctor lectured her about faking an illness when he couldn’t offer a diagnosis or solution:

Others wrote of the trite responses they received when seeking answers to debilitating ailments:

Or how they had to reframe their pain to convince medical professionals to find a solution:

Or wait for things to get really, frighteningly bad:

In an email, Gailey told me that she was floored by the overwhelming response she’s gotten since she posted her story on Friday. “The thing that was immediately most surprising to me was the sheer quantity of people who have been saying ‘Yes, this is exactly my experience, and I’m so tired of fighting to be heard,'” she wrote. “It wasn’t surprising in content, but in volume—I was really just staring in awe at my notifications as people shared story after story of losing ovaries, finding cancer, and needing emergency surgery.”

Taken together, the stories are a harsh indictment of how the medical field is biased against women’s distress. A clinical investigation from 2007 found that women who reported the same levels of pain to doctors as men were less likely to receive opioid analgesics, or pain relievers, and had to wait longer for them when they were prescribed.

Part of the problem could be that women and minorities are poorly represented in research. Medical Daily explains (emphasis mine):

At a time when non-white Americans bear the majority of the country’s disease burden, women and people of color remain underrepresented in clinical research. In 2004, women made up less than a quarter of all patients enrolled in 46 examined clinical trials, Slate reported. A more recent study published in Cancer found Hispanics and blacks participated in 1.3 percent of cancer clinical trials despite experiencing higher rates of disease than whites. This means that the counsel and care these two majorities receive comes secondhand — it is still largely designed for white men. Even in animal studies, there’s a bias toward males.

If research is geared toward curing male illnesses, it stands to reasons that doctors might be at a loss when facing a woman in pain. Those blind spots are coupled with the fact that women and minorities are still underrepresented in specialty medical fields. A 2015 study found that certain fields, like radiology, orthopedics, and otolaryngology, are still largely populated by men.

Add to that the findings of a recent survey—in which two-thirds of top female doctors said they’ve faced sexism in their career and nearly a third have been sexually harassed at work—and bias against women’s pain becomes even less of a surprise.

Gailey’s gotten some negative responses to her story. Some people, she said, don’t understand what women in pain want solutions, not palliative care.

“Most of the negative responses I’ve received have been saying that people need to manage their pain through yoga and meditation instead of seeking pharmaceutical intervention. But the people who were responding to my tweets with their stories of pain and misdiagnosis were by and large not seeking medication—they were seeking answers. They wanted a diagnosis and a long-term solution. They wanted to be heard, taken seriously, and helped.”

And, of course, as women disproportionately do online, there have been messages from trolls, which Gailey described as “all the usual bushel of derailing obtusity that comes along with any attempt to point out structural inequality.”

Encouragingly, she’s also gotten feedback from medical professionals who recognize the problem. “I was also surprised by how many positive responses I received from doctors and medical students who were saying ‘yes, this is a problem, and I want to try to help fix it,'” Gailey told me.

For now, women will have to continue to fight for their health:

Hopefully soon, women won’t be forced to constantly advocating for ourselves when we’re at our most vulnerable.  But for now, take care of yourselves.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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