For the second week in a row, I did not go to work. Instead, I was trapped in my bed unable to walk because of excruciating lower back pain. After two days of pain, I went to a walk-in clinic where I was told by a male doctor that I was most likely just having period cramps. His prescription for me? A heating pad and a nice big bowl of ice cream.
I remember leaving the clinic feeling embarrassed for complaining about something as mundane as period cramps. But after several more days of the pain and the fact that I wasn’t even on my period at the time, I began to think it was something else. Another painful visit to the clinic and the male doctor took one look at me and said I should take an Advil and that again, it was most likely period pain. I insisted that it wasn’t and that I’d like to have some tests done —tests that doctors had immediately ran on my dad a few years ago when he came in regarding his own back pain.
Turns out it wasn’t period pain. It was a slipped disc in my back that would require months of physiotherapy and prescribed painkillers to heal.
By now, I understand that as a woman, I will always have to advocate for myself to get the same treatment as a man. The fact that gender discrimination has found its way into practically every area of society is no secret, but the one area of society that I naively did not expect to be affected by gender bias is the healthcare industry.
My experience with male doctors mansplaining how period pain works to me is not unique. All too often, women enter doctors’ offices and their pain and health concerns are brushed off. This is why illnesses that overwhelmingly affect women like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis and autoimmune conditions often go misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. Although women are more likely to report severe pain, they are typically treated less aggressively than men. Their pain is often viewed from a psychological lens and doctors are more likely to refer them to a therapist than a pain clinic.
While doctors are no longer legally allowed to prescribe women with “marriage” for female psychological disorders like they did in medieval times, the idea that women’s health concerns are all in their head is still ingrained in the healthcare industry today.
The distrust between medical professionals and women stems from a long history of gaps: the knowledge gap, the funding gap and now the trust gap. There is a distinct lack of knowledge about illnesses that predominantly affect women and there is an irresponsible level of unawareness about the female body. From the way symptoms of female pattern heart disease don’t show up on traditional angiograms to the unrecognized side effects of medication that was only tested on men, it is no surprise then that this lack of knowledge results in a lack of funding.
There is five times more research for erectile dysfunction, which affects 19 per cent of men than there is for premenstrual syndrome (PMS), which affects 90 per cent of women. With majority of men making up the main funding bodies of our healthcare industry, it is not surprising that they choose to fund issues they see as threats to both men and women or just men. Simply put, they fund what they fear.
With the lack of knowledge and funding for women’s health issues, we end up with the massive trust gap we have today.
Two years ago, I had a prescription for misoprostol— a medication used to treat stomach ulcers, start labor, cause an abortion or ease the insertion of an intrauterine device (IUD). At the time, I needed it to prepare for my IUD insertion or else the procedure would be extremely and unnecessarily painful. I remember awkwardly giving the older male pharmacist my prescription, him taking one quick glance at it and then responding, “I don’t know why you need this medicine and I am not comfortable giving it to you.”
My younger self tried to be patient and explain to him that I was getting an IUD in the morning and I needed it for the procedure. Apparently, he didn’t know what an IUD was and said he was concerned I wanted this medication for an abortion, which I still would have been entitled to if that’s what I needed it for. But regardless of what I needed it for, I had a prescription from my family doctor. It took another female pharmacist to step in and reason with him before I could get my prescription, but even then, you could sense his distrust and judgment as he reluctantly handed me the medicine.
Every time women enter the medical system, the various gaps of knowledge, funding and trust affect their ability to receive fair treatment. But there are even more explicit biases within healthcare than just being a woman like myself.
Race and sexual orientation are other factors of oppression that make it even harder for individuals to navigate the healthcare system. LGBTQ patients often avoid medical care because of a legitimate fear of discrimination, which often leads to late diagnoses and subsequently poorer health outcomes. There’s also significant anecdotal evidence to believe that racism has found its place in the healthcare system and is putting black lives at risk because of it. Now add gender to any other form of oppression and you have a recipe for neglect. According to an article published in O, The Oprah Magazine, black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women.
It’s extremely unsettling to be aware that something as uncontrollable as your gender can put you at risk of receiving inadequate health care — but I also think this awareness is crucial. Not everything that cis women feel is a result of their uteruses torturing them. However, if you are experiencing extremely painful periods, talk to a medical professional and do not let them tell you it’s just a consequence of being born a woman.
Normalizing extremely painful symptoms of PMS is how endometriosis and PCOS continue to go undiagnosed. Be a “chronic complainer.” Let them call you “hysterical,” but never stop advocating for yourself and your health because nobody else will.
If you’ve ever had a similar experience, feel free to leave a comment below or send us your story via email at firstname.lastname@example.org