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13th October 2022

How healthcare fails women

Women have been neglected by the healthcare system for centuries. Surely, it’s time for a change.
How healthcare fails women
Photo: Zohre Nemati @Unsplash

Ongoing research shows that women’s health concerns have been systematically ignored, both consciously and unconsciously, throughout history. Fleabag’s soliloquy on menopause perfectly embodies the persistent normalisation of women’s pain in everyday society: “I’ve been longing to say this out loud — women are born with pain built-in, it’s our physical destiny — period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it with ourselves throughout our lives.”

With that in mind, we take a look at how health care, both private and public, fails women in the UK.

Is there a gender health gap within the NHS?

Gender health gaps are defined as differences in the “prevalence of disease, health outcomes, or access to healthcare across the different sexes.” Within the UK, there is a fundamental flaw in the way in which women’s health is confronted, managed, diagnosed, and treated by the NHS. This has resulted in significant inequalities between men and women. Research shows that the UK has the largest female health gap in the G20 and the 12th-largest globally.

There is no doubt that the NHS, medical practitioners, and the healthcare system itself do not always intentionally dismiss or deprioritise women’s health. However, the medical system often continues to endorse a health system that was designed for men. Neena Modi argues that “men have historically been treated as the default patient in clinical practice and medical research,” resulting in the subsequent marginalisation of women’s health.

What caused this systematic underdevelopment of women’s health?

There are many reasons behind the de-prioritisation of women’s health within the medical sphere. Caroline Criado Perez, a British journalist, author, and activist, argues that dating back to Ancient Greece, women have always been considered less significant in the healthcare system because of the deeply-entrenched patriarchy.

Perez claims that one of the fundamental reasons behind the systematic underdevelopment of women’s health is the fact that women are “routinely underrepresented in clinical trials.” This insufficiency led to a lack of knowledge about female biology. Doctors, especially those within primary care, have been ill-equipped to diagnose women presenting gynaecological, gendered conditions and symptoms. The medical system suffers from a deficit of adequate knowledge about the female anatomy, in part contributing to the rise in misdiagnosis or complete dismissal of gynaecological issues.

Photo: National Cancer Institute @ Unsplash

Accompanying the insufficient number of women taking part in clinical trials is the fact that medical research proposed by women for women is not allocated the same funding as research initiated by men for men. Perez highlights how research that concentrates on male biology and how the male body reacts to specific health conditions has resulted in a huge increase in female misdiagnosis.

Nadine Dorries, the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention, and Mental Health, argues that less is known about the female anatomy and “female-specific health conditions.” But when women represent 50% of the healthcare system, why have conditions that primarily affect them been consistently overlooked, ignored and under-researched?

Dr Bella Smith, a general practitioner and co-founder of The Well HQ, suggests that the gender health gap has been exacerbated by this insufficient lack of research surrounding these conditions. Medical institutions’ refusal to properly investigate such conditions has shrouded menstrual health in stigma. Subjects encompassing menstrual health have been deemed ‘taboo’, inflicting further pain on those experiencing severe gynaecological conditions, who are often embarrassed to seek medical help.

Photo: Clay Banks @ Unsplash

Debilitating conditions labelled as “benign”

Dr Edward Morris, the president of The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), has explained that waiting lists for conditions such as endometriosis, prolapse, and heavy menstrual bleeding have “increased by a bigger proportion than any other area of medicine in the past two years.” The root of the problem begins with primary care.

GPs are often normalising and not taking seriously women’s stories of debilitating abdominal pain, pelvic pain, or abnormal bleeding, designating it as “benign”. This de-legitimisation of women’s health leads to life-limiting and progressive conditions being misdiagnosed from the very beginning of a woman’s medical examination. Dr Edward advocates that “these conditions cause huge amounts of suffering to women. Being lumped in a topic called “benign gynaecology” downplays [their] importance and suffering.”

To ease the pressure off of long surgical waiting lists during the pandemic, the NHS often cancelled gynaecological surgeries in an attempt to prioritise other patients’ issues. The RCOG analysis revealed that gynaecology waiting lists across the UK reached more than 570,000 women as of December 2021. This was the largest percentage increase in pre-pandemic levels of all elective medical specialities.

Women continue to suffer in silence, having their conditions delegitimated, ignored, or not taken seriously, resulting in the prevalence of abnormal pain without proper medical interference. More than four in five (84%) of female survey respondents in the UK say there have been instances when they felt they were not listened to by healthcare professionals. Leaving a consultation without any treatment, adequate diagnosis, or comfort should not be what constitutes the core values of the healthcare system.

Moreover, the severe symptoms experienced by women are persistently discredited by healthcare professionals, denying them the safe space to express their worries and receive the treatment they deserve. The abundance of knowledge about the male anatomy and male-specific conditions has rendered the female body less significant and subsequently less worthy of medical attention. This issue needs to be at the forefront of the dialogue concerning the improvement of the healthcare system.

Something has to be done about the systematic non-production of knowledge about women’s health. Ignorance is not and never has been acceptable. Women deserve to have their symptoms properly examined, validated, and treated.

Words by Emma Breslin

Read more about gendered healthcare below:

UK Healthcare is Structurally Sexist

Medical Students launch the #LiveableNHSBursary campaign

Are women more likely to die post-surgery under a male surgeon?

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