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Sexism in Medicine: Taking a New Look at an Old Trend

When you walk into your doctor’s office, you expect to be able to discuss your concerns and receive treatment. Unfortunately for many women, a trip to the doctor’s office to discuss their physical or mental health is met with claims that she is too sensitive or that it’s all in her head. Is this rampant sexism in the medical field preventing women from getting the treatment that they need?

Back to Female Hysterias

Medicine has always been biased toward men — and they’ve spent hundreds of years calling women crazy or blaming their health problems on their gender. Female hysteria was the catch-all diagnosis for anything from depression to period cramps, and everything in between. It was the answer for every illness, from wandering wombs (because if your womb wasn’t weighed down by a baby, it might wander around your body and cause problems with your other organs) to problems of the spirit.

In spite of the fact that hysteria has been disproven (it was still a legitimate diagnosis until the 1950s) and research has been done for years on the various idiosyncrasies of women’s health, some doctors still practice this ridiculous form of sexism as part of their daily tasks.

Ignoring her Pain

Do a quick Google search for sexism in medicine and you’ll find story after story of women who have had their pain ignored simply because of their gender. One woman spent 14 hours in the ER with an ovarian torsion (basically, her ovary was being pulled down by the weight of the cysts that had formed on it, twisting the fallopian tube and cutting off blood flow to the ovary). Rather than being treated as an emergency, she was told that “it can’t hurt that bad” and given the standard treatment for kidney stones without even receiving an exam.

Another had been experiencing periods so heavy that they were causing her to become anemic — but she was consistently dismissed, with doctors telling her it was “all in her head,” in spite of the fact that her periods were so heavy that they were causing her to pass out.

As women, we often have to visit multiple doctors to try to find someone who will actually listen to our concerns. Frequently, those concerns are ignored — it’s all in our heads after all, right?

Mental Ignorance

We know that many doctors systematically downplay their patients’ physical symptoms, but what about mental and emotional ones? Doctors ignore mental health complaints at an even higher rate — especially for women. According to the WHO, as many as 1 in 4 people will experience a mental illness at some time in their lives. For women with depression and anxiety, the number is as high as 1 in 3.

In spite of these numbers, our concerns about mental health are often ignored. For years, we’ve watched doctors write prescriptions for antidepressants. I watched a very close friend go through this, and it was infuriating to not be able to help her. It was her regular family doctor, mind you, who diagnosed her — not a psychiatrist. It wasn’t until years later that she got her actual diagnosis — bipolar disorder.

Not everyone knows this, but for individuals with bipolar disorder, prescribing antidepressants is actually a terrible idea. You have to treat both sides of the disorder — the depression and the mania.  If you just treat the depression, the mania transforms into hypomania.

Once my friend finally received her true diagnosis, not only did she finally have a plan to treat her mental health, but she had an explanation for the years of mania-induced bad decisions and broken relationships.

Another scary reality is the intersection between physical and mental health. Some physical conditions can contribute to mental ones, and vice versa. About 33 percent of patients with chronic pain will become depressed at some point during their life.

Flip that, and we see that many people with depression also suffer from migraines, fatigue, digestive problems and various aches and pains resulting from their depression. If doctors don’t take the time to understand these careful balances, both physical and mental symptoms are at risk of being improperly diagnosed or given priority over the other. Often, there is a better treatment available for a given symptom — it just needs to be diagnosed correctly.

Doctors hand out antidepressants nowadays like candy — it’s easier to prescribe some pills than it is to actually talk to a patient and address their actual concerns. Cases are even being seen in which doctors are reporting fictional signs of depression just to prescribe pills and get patients in and out of their offices quicker.

Of course, not all doctors treat their patients this way, but it is important to note that this trend has a systematic reoccurrence. The trend toward sexism in medicine isn’t a new one, but it is one that needs to stop — and we’re the only ones that can stop it, ladies. Take the time to educate yourselves. Doctor Google might not be your best friend, but it is useful for researching possible medications and diagnoses.

If you feel like something is wrong or your needs aren’t being addressed, speak up. Only you know your body. The majority of the time, if something really feels off, there is a reason for that. Ask, request or demand that your doctor listens to your concerns and if they won’t listen, don’t be afraid to find a new doctor who will. There are still many great doctors out there who will listen to you — the challenge is finding one.

It’s not always easy — but we need to fight for our health and for the health of women everywhere.


Kate Harveston
Kate Harveston is a young writer from Pennsylvania. She has a special interest in feminism and social change, and enjoys writing about anything related to politics and culture. If you like her work, you can follow her on Twitter for updates or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.
Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston

Kate Harveston is a young writer from Pennsylvania. She has a special interest in feminism and social change, and enjoys writing about anything related to politics and culture. If you like her work, you can follow her on Twitter for updates or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.