Patriarchy permeates every aspect of social life and healthcare is no exception.
Gender bias, which is evident in the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of patients by medical personnel, can emerge from either assuming uniformity between gender identities when there are far-reaching differences or assuming diversity when there is none. The majority of medical research uses men as their sample, which leads to ‘gender-blindness,’ a one-dimensional men-based view on symptoms is formed, assuming that it applies universally, irrespective of one’s gendered body. This emphasis on masculine traits has the norm and the main frame of reference (andronormativity), ultimately shapes what medical conditions are prioritised in research and healthcare, and how these are understood both in terms of diagnosis and treatment at the expense of other gender identities.
Many studies have revealed unwarranted differences in the diagnosis and treatment between patients based on their gender identities. This discrepancy is most noticeable in conditions such as coronary heart disease, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, or psoriasis. In most cases women are the ones that are adversely affected by this lack of or distorted understanding but there are also cases where gender bias impacts men, for instance when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of depression, anxiety, or migraines.
For instance, coronary heart disease (CHD) has been the most researched of conditions when it comes to gender bias in medicine. The misdiagnosis of cardiovascular in women is so common that Dr. Bernadine Healy coined the term “Yentl’s syndrome” in 2001, which was taken from the homonymous film starring Barbara Streisand, where Streisand’s character had to pretend to be a man in order to get an education. Thus, like Yentl in the movie, women’s symptoms have to emulate those of men or else they are labeled as atypical, and don’t receive the treatment suited for their case. Specifically, just because they don’t have the chest pain typically seen in men but instead have symptoms such as stomach ache, nausea and fatigue, their doctors fail to diagnose them and devalue the associated risk, leading to dramatic consequences.
Taking all the aforementioned information into consideration, the take-home message seems to be that if individuals working in the area of healthcare and medicine don’t stop measuring women’s symptoms against men then women will continue to be misdiagnosed and suffer unjustly. As Dr. Bernadine Healy herself put it “CHD is also a woman’s disease not a man’s disease in disguise”.