Yes, the gender health gap exists & it's putting women's lives at risk

Gender bias within and outside the medical community can seriously affect women's health

17 March 2019 - 00:06 By Anna Clarke
The gender health gap is putting women's lives at risk, with many women delaying seeking medical help for fear of being dramatic.
The gender health gap is putting women's lives at risk, with many women delaying seeking medical help for fear of being dramatic.
Image: 123RF/AnaBGD

We know that gender bias can affect women in countless ways, from their pay packets to their career choices. But one area that is slightly less obvious is health care. Multiple studies show that there is an imbalance between the experiences of men and women in many areas of medicine, suggesting that a gender health gap exists.

Sometimes, this gender discrepancy shows up in the misdiagnosis of women's symptoms; at other times, it appears that women's health concerns are just not taken as seriously. The gender health gap is varied and complex - it's less a case of outright sexism, more entrenched societal values - but, ultimately, the statistics suggest women's lives are being put at risk.

Here are some ways we are still falling short of having a fairer, all inclusive medical system:

WOMEN ARE MORE LIKELY TO DIE FROM A HEART ATTACK

Twice the number of British women die in the 30 days after having suffered a heart attack than do men, according to research from the University of Leeds in conjunction with the British Heart Foundation.

The study found that 8,200 women died from 2003 to 2013 due to the lack of equality in after care. For instance, women were 2.7% less likely to receive a prescription for statins and 7.4% less likely to receive beta blockers, both of which help to minimise the risk of having another heart attack.

WOMEN'S PAIN IS IGNORED

Women and men in pain are treated differently. One study, involving 981 patients, found that when men and women present with the same abdominal pain, women had to wait, on average, 65 minutes to be seen by a doctor while men waited only 49 minutes. And when they were eventually seen, the women were less likely to be given painkillers than men.

WOMEN DON'T SEEK HELP FOR FEAR OF BEING DRAMATIC

A Yale cardiology study found that many women, especially younger ones, delayed or completely avoided getting medical advice for a suspected heart attack as they were concerned that they would be considered a hypochondriac. The study's writers said "participants described feeling anxious about what would happen if they initiated a false alarm".

And bystanders are also less likely to offer medical assistance to women when they are suffering in a public place. A study carried out by the American Heart Association showed that women whose hearts stopped suddenly in a public place were less likely to be given CPR than men, who because of this are 23% more likely to survive the attack.

It's thought that the disparity could be down to passers-by feeling nervous about coming to a woman's aid for fear of hurting her or being thought of as assaulting her when trying to perform a resuscitation.

WOMEN WITH ALZHEIMER'S GET DIAGNOSED LATER

A study by the University of Illinois showed that because women are able to maintain their performance in memory tests better than their male counterparts (due to them being able to recall more words like names or lists), those with early stage Alzheimer's weren't picked up. Their superior verbal memories meant their illnesses went undiagnosed, even at the point when the disease was starting to really affect the brain's key areas.

Researchers concluded that "while the female advantage may be functionally beneficial, it could mask the early stages of Alzheimer's, resulting in a more severe burden of disease at the time of diagnosis, with more rapid deterioration thereafter".

FEWER WOMEN PARTICIPATE IN CLINICAL TRIALS

Women have routinely been excluded from medical research. In 1977 the US's Food and Drug Administration banned any women of "childbearing potential" from taking part in studies. Though this was overturned in 1994, it still continues in some respects today.

For instance, a recent study examining the potentially hazardous effects of alcohol on the drug Addyi, a medication that purports to boost female libido and treat sexual dysfunction, used a group of 25 volunteers - 23 of whom were male.

"Once again we are through the looking glass," says Dr Carolyn Mazure, director of women's health research at Yale. "Prescribing medical treatments for women without fully exploring the possible differences between how that treatment might react in women as opposed to men."

AND MEN SUFFER TOO

The gender health gap is not entirely one-sided. There are areas of health where men come off worse and, generally, men tend to have lower life expectancy rates than women do.

One example of the way in which this gender discrepancy affects men is the HPV vaccine, which is routinely doled out to school girls, but misses out teenage boys completely. - © Telegraph Media Group Limited [2019]

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