Column: The Medical Blame Game

Herizons – For the past three years, sleeping soundly through the night, instead of waking up coughing, has been a rare treat. I’m living and working in Beijing, where dark clouds of smog deposit layers of soot on every surface and cause car accidents and flight delays.
My body’s protest seemed quite dramatic compared to what other people experience. One day I fainted and fell to the ground. I have experienced severe nausea in public places many times. One winter, I couldn’t breathe through my nose for weeks, and my blocked sinuses turned into a painful ear infection. I’m rarely able to exercise outdoors.
Most people have been sympathetic, and it helps that the research has been piling up: Air pollution is one of the leading global risk factors for disease, and it is said to kill millions of people prematurely on an annual basis. But a surprising number of people have joked that I am a hypochondriac or have told me I am lazy because I sleep so much, as if my incapacitating fatigue were a choice.

“Isn’t everyone allergic to pollution?” others ask, implying that I was making a big deal out of something normal.

This is why I was relieved when a doctor recently diagnosed me with asthma. I’ve had previous diagnoses, but they were difficult to explain to people. But asthma, that’s something that sounds straightforward, justifying my claims of having trouble breathing. After I picked up a steroid inhaler from the pharmacy for the first time, I conspicuously used it in front of my naysayers.

After my experience, I talked to some other friends, and I’ve realized that I’m not the first woman to have felt vindicated by a troubling diagnosis. A friend in Toronto, who suffered from a baffling mix of symptoms for years, including pain throughout her body, faced dismissive attitudes from several doctors before finally finding one who took her complaints seriously.

“I should have been upset to hear I had a chronic illness, but instead I just felt relieved to find out what was wrong with me and that people would stop treating me like a whiny paranoiac,” she said.

Another friend recalls being scolded, as a girl, by her parents for complaining about stomach pains, before her family doctor eventually discovered she was allergic to dairy products.

Mysterious chronic symptoms are awful for anyone to bear; however, women have to deal with the additional burden of sexist attitudes that question whether they are sick at all.

Multiple clinical studies have shown that doctors take women’s pain less seriously than men’s pain. Women are also more likely than men to be misdiagnosed with mental health issues. Meanwhile, men tend to be prescribed stronger pain medication than women, even after accounting for differences in weight.

It is easy to internalize these kinds of sexist messages—I needed a root canal for years but dismissed the pain I experienced. I worried that I was becoming addicted to pain medication, before I finally saw a dentist.

A slew of medical conditions appear to disproportionately affect women, such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia; doctors are slow even to recognize these illnesses as legitimate. Sufferers are failed by a medical community that misdiagnoses women’s health concerns or tells them it’s all their heads.

Women are, in fact, risking death because their health concerns are misunderstood or ignored. A 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women experiencing a heart attack were seven times more likely than men to be discharged from hospital—in most cases because doctors weren’t aware that women’s heart attack symptoms tend to differ from men’s.

Imagine a different world, one that is more compassionate, where a woman needn’t worry about being ridiculed for taking a sick day for having menstrual pain. Italy’s parliament is debating a bill to allow women with severe cramps to take up to three days off work with pay. Several Chinese provinces, as well as South Korea and Japan, have allowances for women with severe dysmenorrhea
who need to take time off.

More research on women’s health is also urgently needed. Instead, studies of erectile dysfunction outnumber studies of premenstrual syndrome five to one, and many medical trials are flawed from the start because they use only male
test subjects. Apparently, women’s hormonal fluctuations are regarded by most scientists as too problematic.

As researchers, clinicians, physicians and friends, we need to develop healthier attitudes towards women’s health.

The opinions above are my own only and do not reflect the views of my employer. 

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