Today is International Women’s Day, and as I consider the seismic shifts that have occurred of late in the realms of business, the arts, and politics I am buoyed by the belief that women’s voices are finally being heard, inequity is being called out, and that change is coming. Once untouchable icons are falling, industries are being reshaped, and a new era has begun – except in my universe: the health sector.
I’ve experienced first-hand, the feelings of not being believed by a physician, of feeling disrespected and being infantilized. In each instance, I found myself deliberating; is it just me? However, amidst this emerging conversation that #metoo and #timesup have inspired, a fascinating separate dialogue is gaining prominence as more and more women share their stories of discrimination, inequitable treatment, and frustration at not being able to receive timely, appropriate and respectful access to health care. What had begun as self-wondering organically spilled over into conversations with my friends and colleagues as media worldwide gradually started to report on stories similar to my own experiences – and judging by the overwhelming response, these issues resonate on a scale that was once hard for me to believe.
Whether it’s the patient whose unimaginably miserable hyperemesis gravidarum symptoms are diminished as general morning sickness. Or the one-in-ten women suffering from painful endometriosis made to endure wait times ranging from 7-10 years to receive a diagnosis. Or the countless number of women worldwide who are dismissed as hysterical when seeking help for their severe, chronic pain symptoms – that it is all, “in your head" and who are more likely to have their doctor refer them to a therapist rather than a pain clinic.
The examples are innumerable, and once you’ve become awakened to the phenomenon, you start to notice how pervasive it is. To understand part of what got us here, one only needs to appreciate that just thirty years ago; women weren't included in most healthcare and research studies. Or that even though women and men are physiologically different, many prescription drug therapies and treatments still in use today were disproportionally studied on men. But historical inequities aside, what is especially problematic is that there is currently no corresponding funding body for women’s health research. Combine that fact with the grossly disproportionate level of investment in women's health research funding versus men, and it is pretty easy to see how women have been systemically set up to receive the short end of the stick.
We know that when women are healthy, all society benefits. That there is undisputed evidence that healthy women mean healthy communities, not just in regard to overall wellness, but socially and economically too. On this International Women’s Day, while I’m pleased to see fractures in the current status quo emerging, I recognize there is a significant distance to go in the pursuit of respect, equity and access in women’s health.
We need to be reactive to women’s health needs as identified by patients, supported by research, and put into action by health care practitioners and government. This ongoing awakening as to the gender disparities within health will only change if brought to light. Ask more questions. Share what you learn. Educate your allies and demand more. It needn’t be an exercise in physician-shaming, male-bashing or levying historical judgment; rather it is the recognition of unconscious biases and how this moment in time, which is growing into a movement; has room for everyone to participate within it because the benefits unequivocally serve us all.
For all the women in your life, be they partners, mothers, sisters, cousins, friends or daughters; the door has finally been cracked open, and by being ruthless about communicating the facts on women’s health, regardless of the barriers, together, we can kick it wide open.
This is how movements get started, and it’s time to ensure women have access to the highest quality healthcare when, where, and how they need it.