One morning, when I was 14 years old, I woke up with excruciating stomach pain—the worst I’d ever had. My mom took me to urgent care, and the doctors there concluded that I had gastritis, or essentially a “bad stomach ache.”
But I knew they were wrong. I knew it was more than just a bad stomach ache. I kept pushing my parents until they finally took me to the hospital. After doing a variety of exams, the doctors said something along the lines of, “We really can’t find what’s wrong, but you seem to be in a lot of pain.” They gave me two options: wait four hours until the next available CAT scan, or let them do exploratory surgery and see what they find.
I decided to do the exploratory surgery. It ended up being a major, major surgery—over six hours long—and they found a tear in my intestine. They had to remove about 10 feet of my intestine, and it turns out that if I had waited for the CAT scan, I actually would have died. So, I like to say that that was the first time I learned how to trust my gut (in this case, my literal gut).
I think about this experience all the time, but I found myself reflecting on it even more as I was reading my friend Dr. Alyson McGregor’s new book, Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health and What We Can Do About It. I don’t know how much of my near-death experience was linked to my being female, but I do know that when it comes to our medical system, women have consistently experienced poorer outcomes in every area of health than men.
McGregor writes: “One of the biggest and most flawed assumptions in medicine is this: if it makes sense in a male body, it must make sense in a female one.”
Our methods for evaluating, diagnosing, and treating disease for both men and women are based on previous research performed on male bodies. But women are physiologically different from men on every level—and these differences can have major impacts on everything in medicine, from how drugs are prescribed, to how routine tests are performed, to how pain is assessed and treated, to how systemic disease is diagnosed.
Here’s an example. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, but women have statistically poorer outcomes and higher mortality. Why? Because women’s symptoms are simply different from men’s. While men might experience left arm pain and chest heaviness (“typical” heart disease symptoms), women often present with only mild pain and discomfort, possibly combined with fatigue, shortness of breath, and a strong feeling that “something isn’t right.” Since women’s symptoms are not the symptoms that doctors typically associate with heart disease, their heart disease is 50 percent more likely to be initially misdiagnosed.
There are hundreds more examples like this one. It’s clear that there is work to do when it comes to unconscious biases in medicine—but, as women, how can we best advocate for our health and ensure that our concerns are heard and taken seriously?
1. Be prepared.
Your doctor may have gone through years of medical school, but that doesn’t mean they’re all-knowing. Research your conditions, your prescriptions, and how your prescriptions interact with each other. This way, you can have an informed conversation with your physician if something is wrong. Also, keep an up-to-date list of your prescriptions and allergies with you at all times so that any provider who cares for you will have all of the information they need.
2. Ask questions.
Even after you do your research, you may still have questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them—especially gender-specific ones. For example, “Has this medication been tested in women? If, so are there different dosing guidelines?” Or, “Will this prescription/test/procedure affect my birth control/pregnancy/breastfeeding?” It’s important to make sure you’re not only being treated for the correct conditions, but also that you’re being treated properly as a woman with those conditions.
3. Trust yourself.
Just like 14-year-old me trusted her (literal) gut! No one’s voice should take precedence over yours when it comes to your body and your health care. As women, we tend to be more attuned to our own bodies than men. We are more likely to notice symptoms when they first appear, and we usually seek treatment more frequently and earlier than men. If you feel like you’re being misdiagnosed or undertreated, keep pushing until you get answers—your life may depend on it.
4. Make your voice heard.
It’s important to advocate for yourself on an individual level, but you may be inspired to do even more. Financially, you can donate to research and advocacy foundations, or even specific research projects within your local universities and hospitals. Other effective advocacy ideas that don’t cost anything are to join a medical research trial, join a support group, or harness the power of social media to share your story. Any of this could be what makes it possible for others to get the treatment they need.