Gender Bias in Medicine – When Women’s Health Concerns are Overlooked

Lynn Martelli
Lynn Martelli

Despite significant advancements in healthcare, some women still experience disparities in the diagnosis, treatment and understanding of their health conditions. Medical research and healthcare systems have traditionally focused more on men’s physiology. This can have detrimental effects on women and lead to cases of medical negligence.

For example, until 2022, crash test dummies were always based on the male body, meaning that car designs leave women more likely to suffer from whiplash or even fatality.

The historical perspective & research disparities

Worryingly, this is only one example of many. Historically, medical research has often focused more on men than women. Before the 1990s, most medical research was based on the male body.  Scientists thought it was better not to include participants with the capability to menstruate or bear children.

The research imbalance persists in some cases, though perhaps for less deliberate reasons. For example, an analysis found that in dermatological research, most studies have been on animals or cell lines, with no information regarding sex. Where researchers did declare it, 60% of cell lines came from males.

In addition, 30% of those affected by gout disease are women. However, only 5.3% of gout clinical drug participants have been women.

Diagnostic Challenges

What’s more, conditions affecting women often take a long time to diagnose or are prone to being misdiagnosed altogether.

On average, it still takes an average of 7-10 years to correctly diagnose a woman with endometriosis, despite its prevalence in women. It is often initially misdiagnosed as IBS, PCOS or even allergies. Once diagnosed, some women go through several unsuccessful treatments before they are finally pointed in the direction of one that addresses the problem at its root.

It’s also alarmingly common for women to remain undiagnosed with autism or ADHD until adulthood. This is because the medical community has previously had more awareness of how to identify the signs of neurodiversity common in men and boys. This can lead to detrimental confusion and self-confidence issues in maturing girls and women.  

Implicit Bias in Healthcare

Many women report fear of being perceived as ‘hysterical’ when expressing a health concern to a professional. Unfortunately, there have been many instances where their fears have not been unfounded.

Some women are also afraid to ask for a female healthcare provider to discuss symptoms they may find sensitive or embarrassing.

These concerns can result in a lack of trust in the healthcare system or an unhealthy level of fear about going for a diagnosis in the first place.

The Call for Change

The UK government has now launched a new strategy to improve women’s health, based on evidence of a gender bias. Its goals include improving the quality and accessibility of information about women’s health and ensuring more is done to support relevant research.

New strategies to protect violence aimed at women and girls and to protect their sexual and reproductive health have also been launched.

There’s still a long way to go, but it’s positive to see women’s voices paving the way for better representation in healthcare.

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