If endometriosis affected men and women equally, there would have been an inquiry decades ago
We need to recognise how deeply entrenched sexism is in healthcare. If this was a universal issue, there would be more investment, focus and research dedicated to lowering these appalling statistics
Like most other institutions, our healthcare system has a problem with sexism. There is no doubt that huge medical advances have been made in recent years, but women’s health has remained neglected, underfunded and poorly researched.
Women still struggle to be believed by doctors. In fact, they are more likely than men to be misdiagnosed, not taken seriously and told that their pain is all in their head. This is clearly unacceptable and this lack of understanding can be dangerous. So it does not surprise me that MPs have felt it necessary to launch an inquiry into one neglected area of reproductive health: endometriosis care.
One in 10 women live with endometriosis. The symptoms include debilitating pain and infertility and can leave those who suffer from it feeling suicidal. You would think that doctors would have the resources and knowledge to efficiently diagnose and treat a condition that affects so many. Yet on average, it takes 7.5 years for those with it to receive a diagnosis. This inquiry into standards is overdue but will do little to help those who have already suffered.
I believe that this lack of care is due to female bodies being seen as the other in a world where male bodies and conditions are regarded as the default. Women’s health still remains a mystery to many and much of our understanding of illness is seen through the lens of how it affects men. If you asked anyone what they thought the symptoms of a heart attack were, I am confident that most people would start off by describing intense chest pains. However, a third of all women who have a heart attack do not experience this. They are more likely to experience dizziness, nausea, be disbelieved and then told that they are having an anxiety attack.
Unfortunately, sexism can be found in all areas of healthcare including medical research, which also has a long history of ignoring women and their needs. It wasn’t until the nineties that women really started to participate in clinical trials. As a result, a lot of medication had only been tested on men with little thought to how it might affect a woman differently. The sleeping pill Ambien is one instance of this. This drug was only tested on male rodents and then men. It was later discovered to have a much stronger effect on women who were more likely to suffer from adverse side effects or overdose.
To not think it was necessary to see how a potent medication might effect half the population is unacceptable. What is more frustrating is that women are still often excluded from research. While this isn’t intentionally malicious, the fact that women are so easily dismissed is infuriating especially when there could be potentially serious consequences.
The lack of investment in women’s health is most apparent when it comes to issues that are specific to the reproductive system or vagina. The shortage of research in this area means that women and gender diverse people are often expected to accept sub par care due to a lack of knowledge. That many women go through life not realising that excruciating periods and intense mood swings are not a normal part of the menstrual cycle is just one example of this. The recent vaginal mesh scandal that left patients’ suffering is another. There is still a taboo when it comes to discussing these issues and this sexist attitude means women suffer.
For women of colour, things are even more difficult and dangerous. The standard of care is lower for them than it is for white women. This is clearly demonstrated by maternal mortality rates in the USA and the UK. Black, Native American and Alaska Native women in the US are three times more likely to die during childbirth compared to white women. In the UK, black women are five times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Shockingly, 60 per cent of those deaths are thought to be preventable. If this was another area of healthcare where the patients were both men and women, I have no doubt that there would be more investment, focus and research dedicated to lowering these appalling statistics.
It is clear that change needs to happen. We need to recognise just how deeply entrenched sexism is in healthcare and try to start unpicking those structures. There desperately needs to be more funding, research and education into women’s health. There needs to be a particular focus on those women who are often treated worse or left to slip through the cracks. Crucially, attitudes need to change. Women need to be taken just as seriously as men. Their pain should not be minimised and the stereotype of the hysterical woman should be crushed. Everyone should be entitled to equal healthcare. Unfortunately, we're still not there yet.