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Empowering Women in Medicine

Excluding Women - Endangering Women

Some may argue that because medicine is an "objective science," it doesn't matter whether women or men are in charge. But it does. Women not only make a difference with their presence in the tiers of power, but just as importantly, their exclusion can have detrimental effects on the entire system. In medicine, this often endangers women's lives.

Medical Research is Sex-Biased

Medical research is a major area that is flawed because of the lack of women in medicine. Medicine, governed and practiced primarily by men, has based its research on a "norm" of a white, 150-pound male. Yet, although most research has been done on men, the results are generalized to all persons, regardless of whether they are relevant for women. Among those studies:

  • A $150 million ten-year study on cholesterol and heart disease in men by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
  • The landmark Physician's Health Study on the potential benefits of aspirin to prevent heart attacks in 22,000 men.
  • A national study of 4,000 businessmen that first formulated the concept of the Type A personality.

What is good for the gander is not always good for the goose. Still, researchers and doctors persist in applying male answers to female questions despite the evidence that all diseases are not the same in men and women.

It has been documented that women are more prone to thyroid and gall bladder problems, rheumatoid arthritis, and eating disorders. Men are more prone to ulcers and hernias, have shorter life expectancies and experience different problems in aging. To dismiss gender differences in illnesses as trivial or ignore them is not only poor medicine, it is downright dangerous for women. In addition, there are some conditions, such as menopause and the effects of oral contraceptives, that are unique to women and merit more thorough study.

Ironically, it is the very fact that women are different that is used as an excuse by men to exclude women from studies. Male researchers often claim the female body is "too complex" to use in controlled studies. According to this rationale, men's bodies are much more similar to the "norm" than women's. With women, menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and pre- and post- menopausal phases all present additional factors. Hence, it is easier to draw conclusions from experiments using males. Medical researchers most frequently choose to take the "easier" population to study.

Just as important as the research that is done (or more often, is not done) on women, is how it is applied. For if woman as subject suffers, woman as patient suffers even more.

Doctors Neglect Women Patients

Too often, women's symptoms are not taken seriously. From the moment a woman enters the medical system, her observations and symptoms are more likely to be considered insignificant or due to emotional reasons than a man's symptoms. Even when the evidence is identical to men's, physicians still ignore it. In a 1987 study of male and female patients whose test results on their heart were abnormal, doctors were twice as likely to attribute the wornen's symptoms to psychiatric or other non-cardiac causes than the men's.

Even when women's symptoms are taken seriously, they are treated less aggressively than men's. A study published in the New England Joumal of Medicine in 1991 showed that women with heart trouble were less likely to receive cardiac catheterization or coronary bypass surgery, even though the symptoms the women reported were consistent with severe heart trouble. This occurred despite the fact that more women than men die from heart disease each year.

Heart disease is not the only illness in which there is a discrepancy in treatment. In another study, women were twice as likely as men not to receive a diagnostic test for lung cancer, even though lung cancer is now the number one cancer killer of women.

Kidney disease treatment also favors men. Women with kidney disease were not only less likely to receive dialysis, but also less likely to receive a kidney transplant. At every age, male patients were prioritized over women, with the biggest gap occurring in the 46-60 age group. A woman at that age was only half as likely to receive a transplant as a male the same age with the exact same condition.

When women are not at every level of medicine reaffirming the seriousness of what female patients are saying, it is women who die from the silence.

Medical Statistics Are Misleading

These medical treatment patterns fly in the face of statistics that show women are the primary users of the medical system, are more likely to have tests ordered, more likely to be prescribed something, and are operated on more. How can these two contradictions exist?

The tragic flip side of this is that when women with symptoms or problems unique to women are taken seriously, they are more likely to be submitted to debilitating procedures or "overkill." According to the 1987 National Hospital Discharge Survey and Annual Summary, caesarean section and hysterectomy were listed as the third and sixth most common surgical procedures done in the United States.

All told, of the top 20 most common surgical procedures, six are performed exclusively on women. And due to the lack of women in decision-making positions, no clarion call is being sounded to find alternatives to these invasive procedures.

Women are also more likely to be prescribed sedatives, tranquilizers, or anti-anxiety agents. In a study done in the early 1970s, 20% of adult American women, but only 8% of adult American men had been prescribed "daytime sedatives." Twenty years later, in a 1990 study, scientists found that the traits most likely to increase one's chance of being prescribed a sedative were to be white, divorced or separated, older, and female. Again, this tendency reaches ludicrous proportions: One woman was prescribed Valium for her heart palpitations!

The need for women in decision-making positions in medicine is critical. For too long, women's health has been ignored, their symptoms dismissed, and their biological differences, used in other fields as a reason for women's exclusion, trivialized as not worth studying.