When it comes to managing your health, you’re probably saying to yourself, I already do. I go to the doctor more than most men, I try to keep up with all my tests and shots, and I stay on top of all the latest health information. What else could I possibly do?
The answer is a lot! For my book, Sidelined, How Women Manage and Mismanage Their Health, I talked with more than 40 women and reviewed the scientific and cultural literature on women and illness. I learned that there are many factors that can keep women from getting the best healthcare. Some, we’re well aware of; others, not so much.
Sometimes the Medical Community Sidelines Women
For starters, women’s diseases get less research funding than men’s. More research money is devoted to understanding prostate cancer, for example, than to uterine, cervical, or ovarian cancer, even though prostate cancer is much less likely to be fatal than the other three.
Unconscious gender bias is also a problem. Women are far more likely than men to be told that their symptoms stem from stress rather than from a physiological condition. In fact, stress seems to be the new code word for the Victorian concept of hysteria. In the process, our true problems often go misdiagnosed.
In one study, physicians were presented with two different scripts of men and women who presented with identical cardiac symptoms. In the first script, there was no mention of stress, and as a result, the diagnoses were generally correct for both genders. The second script indicated that patients were experiencing some stress, and in that scenario, only 15 percent of the women received a cardiac diagnosis compared to 56 percent of the men.
In general, 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed each year and women are 20 to 30 percent more likely than men to fall into that category. And women of color are more likely to be at the higher end of that scale.
Sometimes Women Sideline Themselves
There are many ways that women unconsciously do themselves a disservice when it comes to their healthcare. So many of us put ourselves last—behind the needs of our children, partners, parents, bosses—even sometimes our pets. So, we put off going to the doctor because there’s just no time.
That mindset needs to change. Remember the airline advice to put on our own oxygen masks first before putting on our children’s? We need to apply to that our health as well. In fact, being healthy ourselves may make us even more effective caregivers for all those other people in our lives.
Don’t Sideline Your Judgment: Get Second Opinions
Even when we’re unsure about what the doctor tells us, women hesitate to get second opinions more than men do. We don’t want to be rude and hurt the doctor’s feelings because, after all, they’re the professionals. Who are we to question their judgment?
But remember those 12 million Americans who are misdiagnosed each year. Getting as much information as you can will help ensure that you don’t become one of them.
Don’t Sideline Your Symptoms: Be Honest
Sometimes we’re so anxious to be “good patients,” that we end up minimizing our symptoms. In one study, 87 percent of 500 patients suffering from lupus downplayed their symptoms to their doctors. Other times, we may withhold information. We don’t want to be judged or criticized so we say to ourselves, “I can’t tell my doctor that.”
And hard as this may be to believe: some women actually lie to their doctors. Does any of this sound familiar? “No, I never drink, not even at parties or on weekends.” “Yes, of course, I exercise almost every day.” I’m very careful about my diet and never eat anything that isn’t healthy. Candy – wouldn’t consider it!” It turns out that a whopping 52 percent of women “stretch the truth” when they talk to their doctor.
The more forthcoming you are, the better your chances of receiving an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
Do Sideline Your Shame and Guilt
So many of the women I met saw their illness as an embarrassing public declaration of their inability to manage their lives. Often, they blamed it on stress or felt it was punishment for some kind of misdeed. One woman even convinced herself that her sickness as an adult was payback for meanness she showed to some girls in high school!
I place some of the blame for this squarely on our role in medical history. Aristotle called us “mutilated men;” Plato viewed the womb as a “predatory, voracious animal.” An old Dutch saying compares a houseful of women to a cellar full of sour beer. The Chinese called daughters, “maggots in the rice.” Not a pretty picture! We’ve been treated for thousands of years as if something is inherently wrong with us, and many of us have unconsciously internalized that point of view.
And this unhappy condition continues today in various ways. The wellness movement, for example, has given us some wonderful and motivating suggestions for how to care for ourselves and think positively about our health. But by focusing so much on self-care, it implicitly conveys the idea that if we don’t feel well, it’s because we haven’t done enough or that our attitude isn’t positive enough. Illness is more random than that, however, and while it’s true that stress can make you ill, there are a lot of people who are stressed but who don’t become ill. Think about the people who smoke who don’t get lung cancer or those who drink who don’t get liver disease. My father-in-law rarely exercised, ate nothing but red meat, hated fish and almost all vegetables. He was healthy until he died at 85.
Of course, I’m not saying we should forget about trying to live a healthy lifestyle. That would be silly. But I am saying that getting sick is often no fault of our own. In fact, thinking that it is can sometimes make things worse because it can keep us from seeking the care we really need.
These are just a few of the barriers women need to recognize and deal with to get the best medical care. If you sideline your health, if you ignore your discomfort with your doctor or your diagnosis, if you misrepresent how and what you’re feeling, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice.
While no one intentionally sabotages their own health, I urge you—whether you are a woman reading this or a man who loves a woman—to become more aware of the tools you need to deal with your health more proactively and effectively. There are lots of things we can change so that we all take better charge of our health.
“Heart Attacks in Women More Likely to Be Missed.” University of Leeds News (England). August 30, 2016, https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3905/heart_attacks_in_women_more_likely_to_be_missed.
“Women and Autoimmunity.” American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. https://www.aarda.org/who-we-help/patients/women-and-autoimmunity.
Chiaramonte, Gabrielle, and Ronald Friend. “Medical Students’ and Residents’ Gender Bias in the Diagnosis, Treatment, and Interpretation of Coronary Heart Disease Symptoms.” Health Psychology 25, no. 3 (March 2006): 255-66.
Dworkin-McDaniel, Norine. “The Lies Women Tell Their Doctors.” Redbook. Redbook. Accessed March 10, 2012. www.redbookmag.com/health-wellness/advice/women-health-lies.
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Mastroianni, Brian. “Why Getting Medically Misdiagnosed Is More Common Than You May Think.” Healthline.com
Russell, Elizabeth Schuler. “When Women Should Seek a Second Opinion.” Edited by Deborah Harvey. Patient Navigator
Sizensky, Vera. “New Survey: Moms Are Putting Their Health Last.” healthywomen.org. 2015. https://www.healthywomen.org/content/article/new-survey-moms-are-putting-their-health-last.