A look at this week in women’s healthcare

Our guest post this week was written by Dr Louise Newson, a GP and menopause specialist, looking at the role doctors play in enabling women to make evidence-based, informed choices about their own healthcare – and the importance of supporting patients to make the choice that’s right for them, even if the doctor doesn’t always agree with it personally.

While many of the posts on Hysterical Women have been – and will, I’m sure, continue to be – focused on the failings of individual doctors to take women’s health concerns seriously, it’s important to recognise that there are many fantastic doctors out there campaigning to tackle the systemic sexism they see in their own profession, and working hard to support their female patients. I’m really grateful to Louise for sharing her own professional perspective on this, as well as reporting back from the recent breast cancer conference at which she was a speaker.

Mind the gender health gap

Also writing on the subject this week was Dr Kat Arney, for The Daily Mail, looking at how “women get a raw deal in a whole range of ailments“.

In particular, she looks at the way Alzheimers and heart disease typically affect men and women differently. Since medical research and understanding of these conditions has historically focused on the way they manifest in men, women are inevitably under-diagnosed, or misdiagnosed, because doctors don’t necessarily recognise their symptoms.

When it comes to our health, it seems there is still a gender gap in what we know and how we treat men and women.

Research suggests that women are missing out on potentially life-saving treatments and tests because doctors and researchers have failed to take fundamental biological differences between the sexes into account.

Certain behavioural or social factors mean that women are less likely to be diagnosed with particular conditions, or get treatment, too.

Dr Arney also points to the way women have been, and still too often are, excluded from pharmaceutical trials – including a recent study on the interactions between alcohol and Addyi, a drug designed to boost female libido, which tested the results on 23 men and just two women.

Similarly, Dr Arney says: “anti-anxiety drug Valium — known as ‘mother’s little helper’ — was originally never tested on women.” Recent evidence, she adds, suggests the menstrual cycle may actually have a major impact on Valium’s effectiveness depending on the time of the month, even rendering it useless.

This gender gap in scientific research, understanding and knowledge is something that Maya Dusenbery’s book Doing Harm looks at in a lot of depth, and we’ll be exploring it further on Hysterical Women over the coming months.

Suicidal women ‘not taken seriously’

The headline on this report from earlier in the week really says it all. The National Women’s Council of Ireland and St Patrick’s Mental Health Services this week published their report Out of Silence, women’s mental health in their words, based on interviews with 100 women across Ireland.

The Times reports (£):

Jenny Liston, a co-author from the NWCI, said that some of the women reported that when they sought care for depression or a suicide attempt, they were brushed aside.

“Women are seen as crying wolf, their suicide attempts are dismissed,” one respondent to the study said. Participants also said that doctors were overly-reliant on prescribing medicines when treating a patient with mental health concerns and less inclined to refer them to counselling services.

Women who sought medical help after a suicide attempt reported that they felt their experiences were not treated with enough gravity and the healthcare worker they dealt with did not adequately follow-up with them after the initial meeting.

For me, the report startlingly reflects the words of Rachel Williams, who wrote our guest blog post on World Mental Health Day:

Up until that point, countless visits to the GP had my condition misdiagnosed as depression, and I was fobbed off with yet another prescription for antidepressants, none of which seemed to work. I always felt that my self-harm was dismissed as ‘just a teenage phase’. Even when I attempted suicide aged 18, no one queried it further. I think everyone thought that I was just doing these things for attention. Some went so far as to tell me that directly, but I am sure that many more were thinking it.

Does feminism care enough about women in childbirth?

Birthrights founder Rebecca Schiller wrote brilliantly for The Pool this week on the need for a feminist conversation around obstetric violence, and women’s rights during childbirth:

Obstetric violence (described to me by American writer Elisa Albert as the “last culturally acceptable form of violence against women”) was given its first legal definition in Venezuela in 2007. Used to describe abuse, discrimination and physical or emotional violence against women in reproductive-healthcare settings, it includes withholding necessary treatment and the arbitrary removal of their basic rights to autonomy.

For too long, reproductive rights have started and stopped with contraception, sexual consent, sexuality and abortion. These are vital topics, but now the lack of attention to assaults on women giving birth is holding us back.

Until all women’s rights in childbirth are given the attention they deserve, we cannot expect to make the deep and complex progress needed to achieve true equality. After all, our ability to become pregnant is the root excuse for treating women as second-class citizens. If we don’t value women’s humanity in this act, which is particular to them and something that is so intertwined with the barriers women face to full and equal participation in society, then we make it an easy access point for the disruption of feminist progress.

Michelle Obama real talk

Everyone’s favourite ever first lady has been opening up about her own reproductive health this week, and had some particularly poignant things to say on the importance of women sharing and supporting one another:

I felt lost and alone, and I felt like I’d failed, because I didn’t know how common miscarriages were – because we don’t talk about them. We sit in our own pain, thinking that somehow we’re broken. So that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to talk to young mothers about the fact that miscarriages happen, and the biological clock is real… I think it’s the worst thing that we do to each other as women, not share the truth about our bodies and how they work, and how they don’t work.

And finally…

I bookmarked so many articles on women’s health this week – covering the menopause, abortion rights, pregnancy shaming, sexual health education, NHS migrant charges, breastfeeding stigma, and fat-shaming – that I haven’t even begun to fit them all in, so here’s a quick roundup of extra recommended reading for the week: