This weekend’s roundup of sexism and choice in women’s healthcare
After last week’s informative BBC documentary on the pill, this week saw some more interesting programming on female-dominated healthcare issues, with BBC documentaries investigating both the medical implants industry and the menopause.
The Truth About The Menopause arguably left quite a lot of significant stones unturned, but it’s still great to see this conversation becoming increasingly mainstream.
To coincide with it airing, I looked into early menopause for BBC Three, and spoke to three women in their 20s who’ve all experienced a premature, medical or temporary menopause.
Elsewhere this week…
The gender pain gap is real. Doctors, stop dismissing women’s conditions
Off the back of a large-scale investigation into the implants industry, conducted by The BBC, The Guardian, and others, Dawn Foster wrote for The Guardian this week about the gender pain gap:
According to a global investigation into the implants industry, hundreds of women have reported worrying issues with the contraceptive Essure implant made by Bayer, and more than 1,000 have problems with breast implants. A Dutch surgeon reported to have removed the Essure devices from nearly 500 women who suffered complications warned the implants had mutated into something akin to “a calcified nail”.
The Essure case feeds into a wearily inevitable pattern of healthcare stories about women. Last year, the Guardian reported extensively about the harm done by vaginal mesh, which saw huge numbers of women suffering unnecessarily and being endlessly dismissed when they raised concerns about the side-effects they endured after supposedly corrective surgery.
We know already that women’s health is taken far less seriously by doctors than men’s. A seminal 2001 study by researchers at Maryland University, titled The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, found that women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed and were more likely to have their pain dismissed. Women have also been found to be prescribed strong painkillers less often, and at lower doses than men.
Pharma company ‘KNEW vaginal mesh implant would leave women in pain’
Speaking of vaginal mesh – which Kath Sansom also powerfully blogged about in last week’s guest post – it was reported this week that manufacturers had been warned, before the product hit the market, that it could “shrink and harden inside the body”. In one email exchange seen by The Guardian, executives at Johnson & Johnson discussed how “shrinkage of the mesh may lead to pain”.
Despite these warnings, the mesh was used to treat tens of thousands of women in the UK – many of whom, like Kath, experienced medical gaslighting, disbelief and dismissal when complaining of painful side effects afterwards.
A mother-of-three blames a now-banned contraceptive implant for a mental breakdown that left her in a psychiatric unit
Another horrifying implant story this week came from The i, who reported on Charlene Baldwin’s experiences with the Essure contraceptive implant:
Charlene, from Rochester in Kent, said: “I started losing weight and bleeding heavily, I was in agony. I would be crying one minute, angry the next and just didn’t know what to do with myself. I went back to my gynaecologist and told him if he did not remove it I’d take it out with a pen knife – I was that desperate.”
The mum is one of thousands of women calling for the manufacturer Bayer to be held accountable for her “years of suffering”.
She is now seeking legal advice, and argued that she has been “fobbed off” during repeat trips to doctors and simply given other contraception.
Endometriosis: Early diagnosis ‘would make huge difference’
As I wrote in my roundup post two weeks ago, endometriosis is a prime example of a condition where women find themselves dismissed, disbelieved, and denied diagnosis – for an average of 7.5 years in the UK.
The BBC this week published the story of 24 year old Alex Roach, who saw several doctors over a period of seven years before being diagnosed with the condition.
Alex told the BBC that she first went to the GP as a teenager, reporting severe period pains that were interfering with her school work. “I was told by many doctors that I was a woman, and that was what happened, and it’s painful for some people. I didn’t hear the word endometriosis for years,” she said.
We were fit young women — and had heart attacks
Last week’s roundup featured a report that women heart attack patients are twice as likely to die in hospital. The study, funded by The British Heart Foundation, found that the misconception that heart attacks are a ‘male problem’ leads to women being dismissed and not receiving adequate care.
In The Times this week, two self-described fit young women also describe their own experiences. Kate Alderton, who suffered a heart attack at the age of 30, “implores professionals not to disregard those who don’t fit the profile of the typical heart attack victim or to ‘write somebody off because of their age or their demographic — [a person of] any age can have a heart attack’.”
Also reported this week: ‘Fit and healthy’ woman, 26, died from rare heart condition after doctors sent her home claiming she had ‘anxiety’ (The Sun)
“I hide my migraines so people don’t think I’m weak”
Fiona Sturges wrote for The Pool this week, questioning whether there’s a gender pain gap when it comes to migraines – which predominantly affect women:
According to the World Health Organization, migraines affect one in every seven adults, though women suffer from it three times as often as men. This can, in part, be attributed to our fluctuating oestrogen levels, meaning many women experience migraines in the days leading up to their period, though not all are hormone-related. But, even so, the perception endures that the condition is linked to emotion and mental health. In the 19th century, physicians saw migraines in women as a form of hysteria – one labelled it “hysterical headache” – and in the 21st century, some aspects of that view remain.
This perceived weakness, I believe, is at the heart of why so many of us resign ourselves to a life spent coping with migraines, rather than finding ways to banish it. Women, in particular, are conditioned to believe that distress and pain – be it migraines, period pain, endometriosis, miscarriage, childbirth, menopause, the list goes on – is something we must live with and ideally keep quiet about.
It could by why we seem no closer to understanding the causes of our affliction. Modern studies tend to concentrate on control rather than cure. If it were three times as many men as women that suffered, would the situation be different? Who can say? For now, us migraineurs must blunder on, trying to accommodate the creature in our skulls and quietly asking people to keep the bloody noise down.
In the US, writer Gila Lyons wrote for The Oprah Magazine this week about her own experience: An Inch-Long Bug Lived in My Ear for Months, but My Doctor Dismissed It as Anxiety.
“Having a bug that lived in the ear was a lot like my anxiety,” she writes. “An invader that came into my body without permission, causing vague symptoms that no one believed could have a physical cause. But just because a doctor wasn’t able to find it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”
As Lyons highlights:
Women, disorder or no disorder, are routinely told their symptoms are due to anxiety when they’re not. Although heart disease is the number one killer of U.S. women, according to the World Heart Federation, doctors often fail to recognize and treat it in women, and women are also more likely than men to die of a heart attack.
According to one study, instead of painkillers post-surgery, women are prescribed valium. And a 2009 report found that women are often told we are suffering from depression, anxiety, or hormones when, in fact, the diagnosis should actually be autoimmune diseases.
This dynamic is like a modern incarnation of the hysteria diagnosis.
Study after study shows that men reporting their symptoms are taken at face value, while female patients are perceived as overly emotional, prone to exaggeration, and therefore untrustworthy reporters of their own experience.
So, as a woman who also happens to have an anxiety disorder, it can be difficult to navigate a healthcare system that already routinely dismisses sick women as anxious. I’m constantly battling with the question: When do I sigh with relief that the doctor has found nothing, and when do I demand fourth and fifth opinions?