Many women have had the upsetting experience of doctors ignoring or dismissing their symptoms. Known as gender bias (a preference for one gender) this phenomenon can impact how providers treat patients—even if those providers don’t realize it.
Studies show that gender bias actually runs staggeringly deep. In a 2020 global report, the United Nations found that close to 90% of people have an internal bias against women. In healthcare specifically, studies show gender bias is not only prevalent but has serious ramifications in the form of poor health outcomes. The effect of these biases in healthcare is even worse for women who are marginalized in other areas of their lives. Specifically, women of color, women facing poverty, trans women, and disabled women already face tremendous barriers to high-quality care due to systemic oppression and discrimination. In this blog, we’ll take a look at how bias might show up in your healthcare experience—and what you can do to advocate for yourself.
How gender bias shows up in healthcare
Gender bias can negatively impact every level of the healthcare experience for people who identify as women. Some of the ways bias can exist for women seeking care include:
A lack of knowledge and research
For decades, women were excluded from conversations about healthcare. In fact, women didn’t even participate in clinical trials for medication until 1993, when Congress mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical trials. Despite that change in legislation, many medical training is still based on the average patient being a 165-pound white male. As a result of their lack of participation in research, women today still receive less accurate care, diagnosis, and treatment. For example, women experience adverse reactions to FDA-approved drugs at higher rates than men.
This impact of this lack of research becomes even more pronounced for people along the entire gender spectrum. Transgender and nonbinary people, for example, also face barriers to adequately informed care. Research shows that surprisingly, more hours of education about transgender are not associated with improved knowledge among physicians and other providers because of bias and transphobia.
Doubts about symptoms and pain
If you’re a woman and you’ve ever felt like your symptoms weren’t taken seriously, you’re not alone. Studies suggest that, although women report more severe levels and longer duration of pain, their pain is more likely to be considered less intense than men’s and treated less aggressively. This problem only worsens for Black women. A 2019 study found that Black patients were 40% less likely to receive medication for acute pain compared to white patients.
Restricted access to care
The bias that women encounter in healthcare can also get magnified by location. Rural communities, for example, have limited funding for maternity care, and almost 50% of U.S. counties don’t have a single OB-GYN. But it’s not just lack of access that may create disparities in care for rural families. U.S. rates of poverty are higher in rural areas, and recent research indicates that medical providers have an unconscious bias against people of a lower socioeconomic status and may believe them to have a lower sensitivity to pain.
Recent events have also placed restrictions on comprehensive healthcare for women. The Supreme Court ruling in June 2022 caused trigger laws in 14 states to go into effect that restricted or banned abortion care. While women are most impacted by restrictive abortion laws, people of all gender identities have to grapple with the implications of reduced access to abortion services in many states.
How to advocate for yourself
The complexity of bias in women’s healthcare means fixing it requires participation from every aspect of the healthcare system, the government, communities, and more. But you can still take control of your health journey and stand up for yourself in moments that matter. Here are a few key steps to advocate for yourself:
Choose your provider wisely
Self-advocacy starts with finding the right provider for you. When you meet your provider for the first time, ask questions and stay actively involved in the conversation. After your appointment, check in with yourself. Did you feel comfortable and heard? Did they give you enough time to ask questions and explain things in a way you understood? You should feel empowered to communicate your wants, needs, and preferences to your provider—and it’s okay if you need to meet with more than one before you find the right fit.
Build your support system
You may have a more positive healthcare experience by having someone you know and trust to help you make decisions and communicate your needs. This person can be anyone you choose—a partner, a friend, a family member, a doula, or a midwife. Your support person can help by asking questions, communicating how you feel, or asking providers for more time or privacy.
Make a plan
It can be helpful to share your preferences and document your needs to make sure your provider understands your expectations for your care. Of course, things may happen that diverge from your plan, but it’s important that you and your provider stay on the same page. Self-advocacy is about maintaining a conversation with your provider so that you can be an active participant with clear opportunities to make your needs known.
How Maven is combating bias in women’s healthcare
No matter what kind of support you’re looking for on your family journey, Maven’s innovative care model provides access to high-quality care anytime, anywhere. With Maven’s care matching, you can meet with providers who understand your unique needs, regardless of race, language, gender, and sexual orientation.
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