Why do women have to fight so hard for their health?
Endometriosis sufferer Sam Brimer puts the lens on gender inequality in the UK’s healthcare system
By Sam Brimer
It’s well known that women typically live longer than men. But did you know that women actually spend a greater proportion of their lives suffering from ill health or disability?
Research into gynaecological conditions is historically underfunded, diagnosis times are unforgivably long and women are less likely to be given pain relief when suffering from a painful condition. And that’s just scratching the surface.
- Endometriosis takes an average of 7.5 years to diagnose.
- Up to 54% of people with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome choose not to see a healthcare professional when looking for information about the condition.
- 48% of women surveyed between the ages of 50 and 55 said that menopause affected their mental health
I’ve been dismissed by doctors many times over the years. I have a painful gynaecological condition called endometriosis, but when I first went to my GP with symptoms at age 13, I was told by a male doctor that my excruciating period pain and heavy bleeding were normal.
It took 15 years of varying symptoms and many misdiagnoses before I was finally diagnosed with the condition. Infuriatingly, it took my husband coming along to advocate for me before I was taken seriously. I blog and write about my experience with endometriosis to help raise awareness of this common condition that people know so little about.
Nyomi – a North East-based feminist blogger, known as Nomipalony – had an uncomfortable experience in 2017, when attending a breast clinic due to concerns about changes in her breasts. She was breastfeeding at the time and had been suffering from frequent mastitis, but she became concerned when she noticed orange peel dimpling and skin thickening.
Nyomi wrote on her blog: ‘I was seen by a male consultant, who made me feel embarrassed and ashamed for wasting his time. When I went in, the first thing he said, while I was adjusting the paper on the bed that I’d knocked off, was: “leave it alone. You women always have to fiddle on with stuff. You think you’re at home, wanting to tidy up”.
‘Then he chastised me for being too modest with my gown and told me to “just get it off”. Which is a horrible thing, when you’re naked from the waist up and feeling exposed and vulnerable in front of two strangers. I wonder how many times he has been in such a position in his life? He didn’t tell me where to put my arms or how to position myself, but then kept acting like I was being awkward and he kept brusquely shoving me into positions.’
Thankfully, Nyomi’s breast changes weren’t down to cancer, but she was still left feeling angry, embarrassed and dismissed.
WHY ARE WOMEN BEING DISMISSED?
A study at the University of Miami in April of this year found that women’s pain wasn’t taken as seriously as men’s pain and that, while the genders express the same amount of pain, women’s pain is considered less intense based on gender stereotypes. Women are, therefore, less likely to be offered adequate pain relief. For far too long now, women have been forced to ‘put up and shut up’ – and any woman who refuses to do so is labelled ‘difficult’.
Let’s go back to Ancient Greece, when the medical condition of hysteria is thought to have first been diagnosed. It referred to women who were thought to be mentally unstable, or prone to ‘causing trouble for others’. The symptoms were varied and ranged from being anxious and agitated to wailing or collapsing into the foetal position unexpectedly. For centuries after, it became a catch-all for when doctors weren’t quite sure what was wrong with a woman, and is thought to have been misdiagnosed in cases of epilepsy, PTSD, infertility, depression, and menopause.
The term ‘hysteria’ has also been linked to endometriosis – a gynaecological condition caused by tissue similar to the lining of the uterus growing in areas outside of the uterus. In Ancient Greece, hysteria was thought to be caused by a ‘wandering womb’, where the woman’s uterus drifted off inexplicably into other areas of the body. Sounds similar, right?
Can you guess what was often prescribed in cases of hysteria? Sex. Yep, seriously. The ‘treatment’ was rumoured to have often been given by the doctors themselves. Talk about job satisfaction.
Hysteria was finally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Yeah, you read that right – what started in Ancient Greece was only disproved in 1980.
WILL THE INEQUALITY EVER CHANGE?
It goes without saying that the NHS is still one of the best healthcare systems in the world. But even Matt Hancock, the UK’s former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, admitted that it is a system ‘designed by men, for men.’ He had vowed to make positive changes in women’s healthcare, with the introduction of the Women’s Health Strategy later this year, but we all know how his time in office ended.
‘Menstrual conditions such as endometriosis – which affects 10% of women and those assigned female at birth, yet takes (on average) 8 years to diagnose – have historically been labelled as “women’s issues” and swept under the carpet, or have been considered embarrassing and not talked about. Yet they may have a severe impact on all aspects of an individual’s life.
‘The Women’s Health Strategy provides a welcome opportunity for the Government to hear about the real experiences and impact of women’s health issues on both individuals and society, to shape future Women’s Healthcare policies, streamline diagnosis and access to treatments, and deliver improved care.’
WHAT CAN WE DO?
As women, we need to continue to fight for adequate healthcare, and for our voices to be heard. You know your body better than anyone, so if something is wrong then you must push for answers. We shouldn’t have to go back to doctors time and time again, but if we have to, then we must. Change won’t happen on its own.