Exploring Gender Bias in Healthcare

In recent years, gender bias in healthcare has become more apparent. It has always been prevalent, but studies are now showing how damaging it is to overall health outcomes. Many researchers are asking the question, “How does gender affect healthcare?” They’re finding it has a large effect.

Gender bias is “prejudice in action or treatment against a person on the basis of their sex,” according to an article in the journal Critical Care Nurse. In healthcare, it refers to situations where patients are assessed, diagnosed and treated differently and at a lower quality level because of their gender than others with the same complaints. Gender bias in healthcare can also manifest as the assumption that males and females are the same when the sexes have differences that need to be addressed.

Avoiding gender bias in healthcare can be difficult both for healthcare providers and for the patients at risk of being harmed by it.

The Dangers of Gender Bias in Healthcare

Gender bias creates dangers in medical treatment. When both genders are not offered equal quality treatment and care for the same medical complaints or when different manifestations of disease are not considered based on sex, we can expect patient outcomes to suffer.

Gender bias is seen across many specialties. Here are some ways it is displayed today in various medical conditions and specialties.

Cardiovascular Disease

Heart attack is the leading killer of American women. Since 1984, the mortality rate of heart attacks has been greater for women than men. Studies show that there is no physical reason that women should die at higher rates than men. In fact, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that when women receive the same therapies as men, their odds for survival are the same. Therefore, it’s safe to assume the increased danger for women lies in the response to their heart attacks, not in the heart attacks themselves.

Furthermore, heart attacks often do not cause the same symptoms in women as they do in men. The symptoms can be much less painful and alarming in women. According to the American Heart Association, “Even though heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, women often chalk up the symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging.” Most of the heart attack signs that are portrayed in the media and taught to patients do not display in women.

It’s important that women be educated about the way they may experience heart attack and that medical professionals recognize the symptoms as a heart attack, instead of looking for obvious symptoms that are more common in men. Then, both genders will receive the prompt and appropriate medical care they need.

Mental Health

Cardiovascular health is not the only specialty in which genders are treated differently. Mental illness is also a discipline where gender bias is becoming more apparent. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women but striking gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness.”

How men and women are treated for mental health issues is not identical, though. WHO has pointed out that women are more likely to be treated for depression than men even though the rates of depression don’t differ greatly between the genders. Some reasons that could lead to the disparity is that women are more likely than men to discuss emotional issues with their doctor due to gender stereotypes and expectations.

It’s important for medical professionals to screen both men and women for mental health disorders to ensure patients receive appropriate treatment. It’s also important to guarantee that women are not overtreated for mental health disorders because their other health complaints are not investigated thoroughly.

Pain Management

Pain management is yet another area where women are not taken as seriously as they should be by some medical professionals. Treatment of pain differs greatly between genders. According to a 2018 article in Pain and Research Management:

Women dominate most diagnoses related to chronic pain, and research has consistently shown differences between the sexes, like the perception, description and expression of pain, the use of coping strategies and the benefit of different treatments.

Even though women comprise most of the diagnoses of chronic pain, many females feel their pain wasn’t initially taken seriously. Amy M. Miller, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), said she heard from many women that their suffering wasn’t initially taken seriously by medical providers.

Miller stated, “With society often dismissing women’s pain and a relatively brief record of research inclusive of women, it is unsurprising that many of the chronic pain conditions for which we do not have direct treatments are more common in or exclusively affect women.”

There are many reasons for differences between the sexes when it comes to pain, and pain itself is always subjective. More research is needed into painful female conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis, but the way medical providers perceive complaints from both genders also needs to be addressed.

Addressing Gender Bias in Healthcare

Simply acknowledging and researching the gender bias in healthcare is a huge first step to alleviating some of the harm caused. Gender bias will undoubtedly guide medical research for years to come to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, gets the right medical care.

A few areas of possible improvement emerge when considering gender bias:

  • Recognizing gender bias: The first step is to acknowledge that gender bias exists. It’s also imperative that patients are aware of gender bias in healthcare and ask the right questions of their care teams.
  • Conducting more research involving women: Many research studies into diseases and treatments are skewed with a higher number of male participants. Ensuring women are properly represented in medical research will help alleviate the gender bias.
  • Educating healthcare professionals: Outreach programs to help healthcare organizations address the gender bias will help make professionals more aware of bias and how it manifests. It’s also important that medical teams understand how certain health issues can present differently in men and women.

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