Women face difficulties in seeking care due to bias

Practitioners often diminish women’s concerns due to implicit biases, preventing them from receiving helpful diagnoses


Courtesy of PNG Item

Bias in the medical field can be dangerous.

Lucy Roberts, Staff Columnist

 For centuries, women, especially Black indigenous women of color (BIPOC women), have been suffering from a lack of public understanding of their health and wellbeing. These centuries of misogyny and racism have led to a society where these issues are still very much embedded, especially in fields such as medicine. 

“Medical gaslighting” is a term that patients have been using to describe their experiences with medical professionals who diminish concerns regarding their health. These patients are most often BIPOC women. 

This all-too-common dismissal of women’s health problems is not a recent issue, but rather one that can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where the term “hysteria” originated from the Greek root word hysterika, which translates to “uterus.”

Women were diagnosed with hysteria when they acted in ways that deviated from the accepted standard of behavior, reinforcing patriarchal values and trapping them within harmful stereotypes.

Hysteria was recognized as a psychological condition up until the 1980s, but women still suffer from misdiagnoses due to these prevailing beliefs. Women may be unfairly perceived as overly dramatic or emotional when reporting symptoms to medical professionals. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Women’s Health, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition after detailing the same physical symptoms as men who were diagnosed with a heart condition.

This study reflects how women may be dismissed as prone to overreaction despite experiencing the same symptoms as men who are able to obtain a physical diagnosis. The overarching perception of women as hysterical and irrational has dangerous consequences, with women then suffering from undiagnosed — and therefore untreated — health problems.

Implicit bias plays a huge role in how all women are treated in the healthcare system, but its most detrimental effects can be seen in the experiences of women of color. One example is the harmful stereotype of the “angry black woman”, which can affect how these women are treated when they require medical attention. 

This stereotype may unconsciously reside in the minds of many medical professionals. When a Black female patient is assertive, or advocates for her physical pain to be acknowledged, doctors may end up automatically attributing her behavior to a false, preconceived image rather than viewing her complaints as reasonable and valid.

Women who do not speak English as their first language also have trouble being taken seriously due to implicit biases that unjustly diminish their credibility as a patient in the eyes of the medical professional. 

For the women who fall victim to these vicious stereotypes, the dismissal of their experiences can result in valid displays of emotion, such as frustration and anger. However, these natural emotions may then be used to further invalidate and discredit the women as patients and instead, paint them as simply hysterical. 

By perpetuating these racialized and misogynistic stereotypes, the experiences of women of color are continuously denied. These experiences must be acknowledged if there are to be true advances made in medicine that pertain to women’s health and wellbeing. 

In order for there to be solutions to these systemic issues within the healthcare system, medical professionals should be required to undergo more extensive training in the areas of implicit biases and study how these unconscious biases can affect how a patient is treated, whether one means to or not.

Women must feel comfortable and safe in the hands of their medical professionals, but this can only happen if the healthcare system takes active steps in improving how they treat patients, especially those from marginalized communities.