A few months ago, a 22-year-old woman called the Caremotto helpline, asking to see our CEO Dr Niranjan Ravuri with complaints of gastritis. She specifically requested to not be referred to other doctors on our panel, but solely to him.
This young woman told us about how a few nights ago she had to be rushed to the ER on account of severe abdominal pain. She was no stranger to this pain, in fact, this was something she experienced as frequently as every month. Normally, she is taken to the ER, administered an IV and is okay to go home. This time, however, the pain was long-bearing and different. She recounted how she was made to wait for over an hour at the ER, writhing in pain. Her family ran from pillar to post, begging doctors and nurses to do something to ease her misery, who either ignored her entirely, or told her to calm down. The doctor-on-duty didn't even think it necessary to administer a pain-killer until after two vials of IV still left her screaming and weeping.
Upon examining her endoscopy report, we were immediately able to deduce the cause of her pain, and why it seemed to intensify with every episode. She was shocked, and told us that several other doctors dismissed her after looking at her reports, and told her that there was really nothing there to fix. That she should just watch her diet and lifestyle since there was nothing else to be done.
This young woman’s experience is not one of a kind.
Recently, John Guillebaud, Professor of Reproductive Health at University College London stated that menstrual cramps are just as painful as heart attacks. While women have been complaining about the severity of this pain for decades on end, it is only now that the medical fraternity is forced to take them seriously.
Studies have gone on to show how women who complain of chronic pain are more likely to receive sedatives to manage their pain, as opposed to painkillers. Women on an average are required to significantly longer in the ER as compared to men, before they are attended to. In fact, 70% victims of chronic pain are women, but even then they are prone to misdiagnosis since their pain is dismissed as an overreaction. These women are more often than not diagnosed with mental health issues!
All of this, in spite significant research pointing out that men and women experience pain differently, and it is very likely that women experience pain more intensely.
This gender-bias in medicine is proving to be fatal to women. One study pointed out that women are more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged from a hospital in the middle of a heart attack! Another examined a group of patients, of both genders, who had undergone a coronary bypass, and found that men were more likely to receive medication to manage their pain as opposed to women.
For 24-year old Ayesha Riaz, and for so many women across the world, a bias of this sort leads to inexcusable medical negligence and ends up costing them their lives.
This deep-rooted perception of women as emotional, irrational, unstable and hysterical has seeped into medical sciences as well, a field that principally must be as objective as it can be. One only has to visit labor rooms and A&E sections of hospitals to understand how women’s complaints of agony are dismissed at best, or are mocked at worst. This is not a country specific phenomenon, but is the reality across the world.
In the last couple of years we’ve made significant progress in tackling the taboo around women’s health - we’ve begun to talk about menstrual health and hygiene on social media and even in our homes, something that was unimaginable a few decades ago. But is it really worth much, if our female patients have to prove to us that they are indeed suffering and require adequate medical care, all the while risking their lives in agonising conditions? Every time a woman’s cry for help is dismissed as hysteria or an overreaction, we as healthcare providers, are failing her as well as our most basic, fundamental oaths as caretakers.
While we #PressForProgress this International Women’s Day, let’s also drop our gender biases when treating our patients. Women struggle to access and afford healthcare, and what a phenomenal disappointment it would be, to have overcome those hurdles and then be dismissed as someone who ‘just needs to relax’, ‘irrational and emotional’, or hysterical.