Unconscious gender bias, which refers to a subconscious assessment based on gender that influences one's actions and feelings, remains a major obstacle to women’s healthcare, but only until recently have certain health inequalities, like The Gender Pain Gap, become a part of the conversation. Too often, women experience patient dismissal and misdiagnoses due to gender disparities in pain treatment.
This piece serves as an overview of what precisely the Gender Pain Gap is, the negative impact it has on women obtaining the best possible health outcomes, and how to overcome this phenomenon.
The Gender Pain Gap refers to the bias against women as it pertains to the treatment of pain, which stems from a landmark study performed at Maryland University called “The Girl Who Cried Pain.” Researchers found that women often experience dismissal of their medical concerns, leading to misdiagnosis, incorrect medicine dosages, delayed treatment, and general feelings of neglect. The exact reason for how the Gender Pain Gap came to be is challenging to pin down, but various studies allude to sexism, a lack of medical research on women, and gender-related differences in the experiences of pain.
Causes Of The Gender Pain Gap
Sexism significantly affects women’s ability to receive appropriate care for pain in many facets. Not only do healthcare providers take longer to address women’s pain, but they are also more likely to misdiagnose women’s pain as psychogenic or emotional. Consequently, women are more likely to be given sedatives instead of pain-relieving drugs which can lead to a delay in accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.
Furthering the gender divide in healthcare is the lack of knowledge surrounding women and the pain they experience, which could possibly stem from the exclusion of women in medical research. Approximately 70% of those who suffer from chronic pain are women and yet 80% of pain studies are conducted using male mice or human men.
In fact, a Caucasian male weighing 154 pounds standing at 5 feet and 6 inches tall has long been the standard body type for studying human anatomy and drawing medical test conclusions. However, hormones, as well as brain function, play a significant role in how women’s experiences with pain differ from men’s, thus indicating that the standard male body is no longer a suitable universal standard for research and more women and female animal models need to be included in these types of studies.
Impacts And Significance Of The Gender Pain Gap
The result of gender biases in our medical system can have severe and sometimes fatal repercussions. For instance, women are 50% more likely to receive the wrong diagnosis after a heart attack compared to men, leading to an increased risk of death. The very thought seems inconceivable considering heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.
Heart attacks are just one example of diagnostic errors in women. On average, it takes approximately nine years and four doctors for women to receive a correct endometriosis diagnosis – a notably painful condition where tissue that typically lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of the uterus. Endometriosis symptoms are not visible, so women who are suffering, once again, have their pain dismissed and are not appropriately treated. In cases where women are given a correct endometriosis diagnosis, they often postpone seeking help because “they themselves viewed their agonizing period pain as normal,” according to a discussion with Vice and Abby Norman, author of Ask Me About My Uterus. Like any other condition, an incorrect diagnosis can lead to delayed treatment and a negative impact on a woman’s quality of life.
Overturning The Gender Pain Gap
In 2015, the National Institutes of Health made a step toward healthcare equality by introducing a policy that requires medical investigators to account for sex as a biological variable during research. Even with this small step, there is still a real need for increased education and awareness surrounding biological differences in pain, as well as a need for more guidance for women whose pain isn’t being taken seriously.
Women who continue to endure medical dismissal and misdiagnoses may learn to take on an active role in their own disease management. By learning how to advocate for themselves, empowered patients trust their body and use their instincts to make informed decisions about their healthcare. This could look like coming to appointments with a list of questions, asking for clarification when needed or opting to find a second opinion.
It can also mean becoming a smart healthcare consumer by utilizing new and upcoming technological services in the healthcare space such as telemedicine. Telemedicine can offer clinical services without an in-person visit and has many benefits such as reducing administrative mistakes and allowing patients access to care on their own terms. Companies like hers, a telemedicine company focusing on women's health needs, was created due to the fact that women don't receive the same attention in the healthcare system as men. By providing women with direct, immediate access to trusted physicians and prescription solutions for sexual wellness, skin care, and hair loss, hers is “putting the power back in the hands of women” in a broken healthcare system, as told by co-founder and brand team lead, Hilary Coles. To learn more about their mission to create a more inclusive healthcare space for women, check out hers’ Twitter account as they use their platforms to increase awareness around women’s healthcare issues and provide valuable information and resources.