Why Is It So Hard To Get Treated As a Woman?

By Nicole Charky

Women’s pain is literally at the mercy of our society. But there is something powerful happening in the health world: Women are starting to speak up.

Men’s biology has generally been the main science studied throughout history. A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” found that men were more likely to receive medication when they requested it compared to women.

Women’s pain isn’t always taken seriously, and this puts women at greater risk. In fact, women are often misdiagnosed, and sometimes harmed as a consequence. That’s because the tests, symptoms, dosages, and treatments for diseases have been based on the archetypal patient: the 154-pound, white male. That’s how medical schools and medical research have long studied the human body — with an inherent gender bias in how we treat women for physical pain.

A 2016 study uncovered that women have a 50 percent higher chance of having an incorrect initial diagnosis after a heart attack compared to men. Women are often overlooked when it comes to preventing strokes, and they are 30 percent more likely to be overlooked. Autoimmune diseases are three times more common in women and can take about five years to be correctly diagnosed. For some, it can take about a decade.

The Pains of Getting Diagnosed as a Girl

In many cases, women are left without answers regarding their pain for years. And because of this, they can face damaging repercussions. This happened to writer Emily Dwass. It took her four years and several doctors before she learned she had meningioma, a nonmalignant tumor, which is actually the same kind that TV personality Maria Menounos experienced. By the time she was diagnosed, the tumor was the size of a baseball, and it caused permanent health problems and also made her surgery much more dangerous had she received an earlier diagnosis. Since her diagnosis and treatment, she’s joined support groups. She’s met women in these groups who have described attempts to get diagnosed for months or years before they were accurately assessed. Though no major studies have reviewed the misdiagnosis of nonmalignant brain tumors, women are more than twice as likely to develop these type of noncancerous growths.  

For some diseases, such as Alzheimer's, for example, there is only recent brain research showing that two-out-of-three individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are female. Yet there isn’t enough research to explain just why it is women are more often impacted by the cognitive disease than men.

Heart disease is the main cause of death for women. However, many women don’t actually discuss the risks they face with their doctors, according to a recent Harvard University Medical School report. Instead, doctors often don’t recognize coronary risk and mistake them as signs of stress, panic disorder, and sometimes even hypochondriasis. Heart disease is also one of the most preventable health problem; but without proper diagnoses, women are left behind. Women who experienced a stroke were 30 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed in the emergency room compared to men, according to a 2014 John Hopkins study.

A main concern for many women living with autoimmune diseases is that doctors simply don’t listen to what they say. About 40 percent of women who are diagnosed with a serious autoimmune disease were told by a physician that they were complaining, or overly concerned with their health. When they find out what actually is wrong, they feel thankful and relieved that they know for sure if they have that chronic condition. It doesn’t even matter that they have the ailment. The fact that someone just listened to them and gave them an answer allowed them to move forward.

I know this feeling very well because it happened to me.

How to break up with your doctor

Nope, it’s not all in your head. If you have pain — and only you can recognize this pain — you must be treated for that pain. It’s that simple. Doctors, who often take an oath after they graduate from medical school, have a responsibility to help you. Like you, they have duties at work, and their duty is to serve you.

If your physician is not kind to you, leave them. You wouldn’t stay with a bad boyfriend or hang out with a crappy friend, right? Go find another person to treat you. There are thousands of health professionals who can help you, and it’s in your best interest to walk away from any unhealthy relationships, including any unhealthy relationship between you and your doctor. If you sense that there is a pain in your body, an abnormal bump, or just a question you need answered, seek only those people who will properly care for you — not the ones who question you. You are a human and you deserve proper medical attention when you need it.

Throughout my teen and young adult years, I had a doctor who once condescendingly laughed at me when I asked if I could get a blood test to check my thyroid. She thought I was worried about nothing — and explicitly said so — but I felt like there was something wrong with me and she continued to make comments about how I should lose weight, though I couldn’t actually lose weight. That’s because, it turned out, I did actually suffer from hypothyroidism. So guess what? I was right, the doctor was wrong. But I wouldn’t have realized that if I hadn’t tried to talk to other doctors about my symptoms.

I know my body better than anyone else. You know your body better than anybody. Trust yourself. Trust your gut. Something didn’t feel right with me, and as I’ve mentioned before, it ended up being a long road to diagnosis and healing. I found out that I had hypothyroidism and PCOS, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. I’m lucky that my condition wasn’t worse, or that my cysts hadn’t grown to be too large, but that’s something you have to monitor when you find out that you have the condition. Many women face dangerous situations in emergency rooms when they are mocked or ignored for similar pain, in some cases to the point that they risk having ovaries die in their system — actual organ failure.

Holistic medicine practitioner Carol Lourie recommends immediately finding a new doctor if your physician is not kind to you. Yep. Break up with your crappy doctor who doesn’t listen to you. Or one who does not provide you with enough support or information to make the decisions you need to protect your health.

You might not be able to change all of the health issues you face, but you will always deserve to have a happy life. You can find the tools and support to recover your health. Having personal faith in yourself that you deserve to feel beautiful inside and out — and feel healthy and happy — is the best way to get started.

Be confident. Ask questions. And consider getting a female doctor, who might be more inclined to hear you or seek out answers to your female-related questions. Experts say to use your voice, advocate for yourself. Don’t settle until you solve your own individual mysteries.

Nicole Charky is a 30-year-old journalist and producer living and working in Los Angeles. She is a contributor to Do The Good Stuff. She writes, creates and manages video content and social media for author and journalist Maria Shriver. Nicole also produces and directs shows and music videos, including Snapchat’s “Phone Swap” and Grammy award-winning artist Bekon’s “Cold As Ice.” Her work has been featured in Snapchat Discover channel Brother, ATTN:, The Los Angeles Times, AOL and Glamour. Her health quest is new, and she's only getting started.