Edited by: Aditi Uberoi | Bengali Translation: Arpita Mukherjee | Hindi Translation: Swati Jaiswal
A plethora of issues related to women are increasingly getting attention today. However, when it comes to medical research and women’s health, the world is still leaving those to chance. How often do we see women suffering from a certain illness or indisposition and the men of the house simply dismissing that as stress or worse still, in many cases, unnecessary paranoia?! A lot of common ailments that women suffer from get misdiagnosed or mistreated due to a lack of research and a limited desire to specifically understand women’s health. Their medical issues continue to be looked at from a perspective that treats male health as the reference point.
In a world where medicine and technology have made so much progress and where women’s issues are at the forefront of every political discourse, it is unfortunate that such a situation persists and that women’s health continues to have only a peripheral position in the overall scheme of things.
Why is women’s health sidelined?
1. Lack of Research:
When it comes to women’s health as a standalone subject, the bulk of the research so far has been limited to pregnancy and child bearing. Most of the other diseases that may manifest differently in women are usually viewed from a male standpoint.
The main reason behind this is the unwillingness to confront the fact that the same disease may present itself in a different way in a male body from that in a female body. Research is based on a sample of animals or a sample mix of men and women. Results are typically recorded in a generalized way, without taking into account the gender aspect.
Perhaps this tendency arises from the skewed gender balance worldwide. The common defence is that gender will not have an impact on a chemical or test unless they target a specific organ or tissue which is gender-specific or acts like a hormone. What such an approach fails to consider is the fact that there is a third case where the female hormones interfere with a chemical or a test in a specific way, producing a different result and changing the analysis significantly.
2. Patriarchal Society:
While things have changed for the better and women are increasingly viewed with greater respect and dignity, the world that we inhabit continues to deem women as the “weaker sex”.
Every complaint about health is taken lightly and often women are ridiculed about their lack of tolerance and tenacity. There are cases where, by the time the issue is taken up by an expert medical practitioner, the damage caused to the body by the ailment or the disease is already irreversible.
3. Asking the wrong question to the wrong person:
Often women are so intimitated by this attitude to their health and well-being that they end up going to the wrong person for the wrong kind of advice. It’s not unheard of when a woman has gone to a gynaecologist even for a toothache!
A specialist is a specialist for a reason. Learning to address health related queries to the right doctor is very important. A gynaecologist can only address issues related to the reproductive system. Only if women’s health is taken seriously will more and more women feel encouraged to view their problems with a certain degree of awareness and to address them with accuracy.
4. Personal Hesitation:
“I have a rash in my private area”. Most of the time, women tend to be so diffident and hesitant to open up about their problems that they fear even spelling out their issues clearly.
They are apprehensive about being judged and therefore, often ignore obvious symptoms until it’s too late. The doctors know medicine but what a woman’s body is really going through is something only she can put in words. Perhaps because of the fact that women are conditioned to bottle up their symptoms, there is such little research on their specific ailments.
Due to a woman’s inability to speak up about what she’s really facing and her hesitance to take it up seriously, often she has to resort to platforms that only offer half knowledge. For example, if one skips a period and begins to scan Google for possible medical issues, the results can be pretty scary, simply because whatever diagnosis shows up is because of half knowledge.
It’s great that the internet is available to all for a preliminary understanding of what one might be going through physically. However, nothing can compare to a proper medical examination and a doctor’s prescription to deal with whatever physical stress one may be dealing with.
6. I am not depressed when I say I have mood swings:
This is a common area of misdiagnosis. In fact, according to a survey, depression is one of the most popular misdiagnosis among women. Whenever women have hormonal imbalances in the body, it is normal for them to experience mood swings. Be it thyroid, PCOD or dysmenorrhea, women’s physical issues have a huge bearing on their emotional well-being and moods.
By dismissing this as depression or emotional instability, women are further discouraged from inspecting what is really wrong with them and finding a cure for it with alacrity.
7. Different Symptoms – Same Problem:
This is a predominant reason for women being misdiagnosed. Men and women are anatomically and hormonally different. But for a long time, this gender difference didn’t affect the research pattern and hence, women have inadequate research to back their health issues. Certain commonly misdiagnosed health conditions are:
This is one of the most popular health conditions in both men and women due to the high amount of stress prevalent in daily, urban lives. Women have different symptoms when compared to men as far as depression is concerned.
They tend to dwell on events longer, are more prone to eating disorders, are less responsive to anti-depressants and more susceptible to chronic headaches and isolation. Women have been found to have greater suicidal tendencies and proclivity to other more serious mental disorders. Women, unlike men, do not generally abuse alcohol when depressed.
- Cardiac Distress:
In addition to shortness of breath, heavy pain in the chest and light -headedness, women have additional symptoms when it comes to cardiac distress like pain in the jaw, stomach, back and arms and/or nausea/vomiting. Thus, it becomes easy to perceive it to be acid reflux or the result of flu. Since there isn’t much awareness regarding women-specific health symptoms, in many cases severe cardiac distress in women goes unnoticed and unaddressed.
- Hormonal Imbalances:
There are several hormonal problems specific only to women and many of them often lead to depression and sleep-related issues as well as hair fall. Hormonal imbalances in men lead to weight gain in the abdominal area whereas women may gain or lose overall weight.
Other symptoms include oily or flaky skin, adult acne issues or eczema, irregular periods or frequent periods, miscarriage, stomach cramps and muscle and joint pain, unwanted hair growth in the face, hands and legs etc.
- Lung Cancer:
It has been recently found that female smokers have a higher chance of getting lung cancer than male smokers. In men, the cancerous cells grow inside the lung cavity enabling early detection, whereas, in women, cancer grows in the outer regions. Estrogen in women has been recently found to promote these cancerous cells.
Though this disease is common in both men and women, some cases of diabetes go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for a long time due to the presence of unrecognized symptoms in women. Such symptoms include vaginal or oral yeast infections, UTI, sexual dysfunction and PCOD.
Dr. Paula Johnson, chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in her TED Talk discussed how the lack of proper research in women’s health led to an undiagnosed case of severe depression in her grandmother.
The experience can be quite devastating for anyone in the family. It is very important that every time someone gets treated for a disease, we ask if there is any difference in treatment for women. It is very important that women learn to question, question correctly and question the right person.
Women share the same right to a healthy life as their male counterparts. It’s time that the medical profession recognises women as separate entities with their unique set of problems and body compositions.
While women have broken free from the clutches of a patriarchal society in a lot of realms such as the social, the financial, the professional and the political, it is time they do so in the medical realm as well and demand their right to being treated as unique and different patients and subjects of study, deserving thorough research dedicated only to them!