Christine Topham almost died giving birth at 33. She needed emergency hysterectomy surgery; however, her healthcare provider (HCP) never adequately explained its dangers to her.
“Before I could comprehend what it meant, the doctor assured me: ‘Don’t worry — your husband won’t notice any difference,'” recounted Topham, now 65 years old.
Topham was devastated to experience such an abrupt loss of fertility; her HCP appeared more concerned with his sexual experience than with Topham’s physical and emotional well-being.
Mashon Thomas, 38, had similar fertility goals but experienced similar experiences at age 25. Knowing she didn’t want children, Thomas met with an HCP to explore permanent birth control options and was offered several.
“Rather than being given my choices as an adult – able to drink, smoke, vote and go off to war – by an impartial doctor, any permanent solutions were inaccessible,” she explained.
Thomas’ HCP assumed she would change her mind.
“I was asked to think about what would happen if I met a man who wanted children,” she stated, as though she couldn’t make her own decisions with regards to her body.
Tiffani Smith Gishizky, PMHNP and psychiatric nurse practitioner of Mindpath Health. Reducing women’s concerns has long been an issue.
“Women who reported symptoms have long been dismissed as being overreacting,” according to she said. Unfortunately, this problem still exists today with women being told their symptoms are in their head or due to hormonal variations; leading to genuine and potentially serious conditions being overlooked or postponed altogether.
Consequences can be dire. A 2018 study demonstrated that more than five out of ten female heart attack hospitalizations reported to HCPs that they didn’t recognize their symptoms as related to heart health compared with 4 out of 10 of men.
Kelly Shoul, 34, found herself in this exact situation after being sent home from the emergency room (ER), despite suffering severe stomach pain which the doctor diagnosed as heartburn. Nine days later however, Shoul returned with fever; it turned out that her appendix had burst and required emergency surgery with part of her bowel removed as part of its removal procedure.
“Now I find it very hard to trust myself and know when to seek care,” Shoul admitted. “And this experience has left me permanently vulnerable to [gastrointestinal] GI issues – it’s horrible!”
Shoul’s experience may be attributable to common perceptions about female healthcare practitioners that lead them to disregard their pain less seriously.
“One reason the healthcare industry continues to disregard and invalidate women’s concerns is due to a longstanding, but misguided belief that they are overly emotional,” according to Judith Leitich, FNP nurse practitioner and medical director at Bespoke Treatment. This preconception that women are weak led healthcare providers to attribute women’s grievances as psychological or emotional upset instead of treating them as legitimate medical concerns.
According to Barb Dehn, R.N., nurse practitioner and member of HealthyWomen’s Women’s Health Advisory Council: “No healthcare provider enters this profession with any intention of disregarding or marginalizing patients,” she stated.
Dehn noted that many HCPs only spend 15-20 minutes with each patient, which doesn’t allow enough time for in-depth interactions – listening takes time!
Research and training lacking diversity harm women
HCPs’ lack of data about women’s health is another factor which may cause them to dismiss symptoms presented by patients.
Gishizky noted that most medical research and training focuses on men. Society is now shifting its attention to include gender studies; thus proving a generic database cannot meet everyone’s needs.
Lack of diversity in clinical trials also extends to race, which could help explain evidence that women of color are less likely than others to be diagnosed or treated for legitimate medical conditions.
Pew Research Center survey results reveal that 71% of Black women between ages 18 to 49 reported at least one negative healthcare experience such as being dismissed by healthcare providers who didn’t take their pain or women’s health concerns seriously compared with 58% overall adults.
“Women of color face additional challenges due to prejudices and unfair treatment due to who they are,” Leitich noted. Lack of access to high-quality healthcare facilities, high maternal death rates, reduced preventive care rates, exceptional health complications related to their ethnicity, as well as insufficient medical treatment may increase the chances of erroneous diagnoses.
Dehn noted that HCPs’ own biases and cultural incompetence could also prove an impediment to effective care.
“Understanding how people describe their illnesses goes beyond simply reading literature on common symptoms reported,” she explained.
Leitich asserted that improving healthcare begins with increasing diversity within leadership positions. She further stated we require additional support for women’s health conditions as well as resources to address health disparities among women of color.
What to Do if Your Doctor Dismisses You
If your physician seems dismissive of you or doesn’t listen, it is essential that you understand that there are steps you can take to advocate for yourself. That may seem easier said than done if the pain goes undiagnosed by them but experts urge women to take control of their health matters and become advocates.
“It is essential to trust your instincts,” Gishizky advised. If something feels amiss but no one seems to hear you out, speak up. Be persistent if necessary and insist upon a change or second opinion if needed.
Thomas was unaware of how to exercise her rights when she was younger, yet her initial negative healthcare experience continues to shape her today.
“From my experiences over time, I’ve come to understand and embrace that it’s always important for me to speak up for myself no matter what a doctor tells me,” she stated. While medical providers can do wonders, we must also do our part by challenging assumptions and seeking multiple opinions and options.