‘All in Her Head’: A Doctor Reckons With Sexism in Women’s Health Care

by | Feb 26, 2024 | Health Blog | 0 comments


Six years in the past, Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a breast most cancers specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan, held the hand of a affected person who was hours from loss of life.

As Dr. Comen leaned in for a remaining goodbye, she pressed her cheek to her affected person’s damp face. “Then she mentioned it,” Dr. Comen recalled.

“‘I’m so sorry for sweating on you.’”

In her twenty years as a doctor, Dr. Comen has discovered that ladies are continuously apologizing to her: for sweating, for asking follow-up questions, for failing to detect their very own cancers sooner.

“Girls apologize for being sick or searching for care or advocating for themselves,” she mentioned throughout an interview in her workplace: “‘I’m so sorry, however I’m in ache. I’m so sorry, this seems to be disgusting.’”

These experiences within the examination room are a part of what drove Dr. Comen to write down “All in Her Head: The Fact and Lies Early Medication Taught Us About Girls’s Our bodies and Why It Issues Right this moment.” In it, she traces the roots of ladies’s tendency to apologize for his or her ailing or unruly our bodies to centuries of diminishment by the medical institution. It’s a legacy that continues to form the lives of ladies sufferers, she argues.

Right this moment, ladies are more likely to be misdiagnosed than males are and take longer to be identified with heart disease and a few cancers; they might be less likely to be provided ache remedy; their signs usually tend to be written off as nervousness — or, because the e book title suggests, as being all in their head.

“The anxious feminine, the hysterical feminine, has been a ghost looming and woven by means of all of medical historical past,” Dr. Comen mentioned. “It’s a default analysis.”

Collectively, she argues within the e book, these injustices assist to clarify why many ladies report feeling invisible, frustrated or ashamed in docs’ places of work. Disgrace could be the symptom, however Dr. Comen believes {that a} deeply misogynistic medical system is the illness.

A mom of three in her mid-40s, Dr. Comen is fast with a camera-ready smile, which has helped to make her a daily in media protection of breast most cancers. She sometimes tears up when discussing her sufferers.

She as soon as wept on the job in medical faculty, and a male resident responded by telling her to “pull herself collectively.”

“I felt like I needed to excuse my response,” she mentioned, sitting behind her desk. “And now I cry with sufferers on a regular basis.”

Her strategy has been formed by a long time of expertise, in addition to by what she discovered in regards to the feminine physique’s place in drugs whereas majoring within the historical past of science as an undergraduate at Harvard.

“The sense that ladies’s our bodies weren’t simply completely different however damaged is clear not simply in the best way docs spoke of the feminine anatomy however within the medical vocabulary itself: the feminine exterior genitalia was termed ‘pudenda,’ a Latin phrase which means ‘issues to be ashamed of,’” she writes.

In “All in Her Head,” Dr. Comen presents a sweeping take a look at the methods through which she says trendy drugs has disregarded ladies. For hundreds of years, she writes, early medical authorities believed that ladies had been merely “small men” — although missing exterior genitals and comparable psychological capability, dominated by noxious humors and hormones.

For too lengthy, docs dismissed “what could possibly be official physiological issues as irrelevant, as hormonal, and due to this fact not necessary,” mentioned Wendy Kline, a professor of the historical past of drugs at Purdue College.

And this was the case for white ladies of means, Dr. Comen writes within the e book. Should you had been a girl of colour, otherwise you had been poor, you had been considered by medical authorities as even much less of an authority by yourself physique, and thus much less worthy of care and compassion.

“For Black ladies, once we go right into a medical setting, we’ve got to consider racial and gender discrimination,” mentioned Keisha Ray, an affiliate professor of humanities and bioethics at UTHealth Houston, who research the consequences of institutional racism on Black folks’s well being. “It tends to be extra exaggerated, the dearth of compassion and the dearth of care that you simply obtain.”

Take coronary heart illness, for instance. Within the late nineteenth century, Dr. William Osler, one of many founding fathers of recent drugs, declared that ladies presenting with what we now know to be signs of coronary heart assaults or arrhythmias — together with shortness of breath and palpitations — had been almost certainly affected by “pseudo angina,” or false angina, “a set of neurosis-induced signs masquerading as real illness,” Dr. Comen writes.

It’s solely prior to now 25 years that cardiology research have included women in significant numbers. Right this moment, some coronary heart assault signs which can be extra frequent in ladies, resembling jaw and back pain, are nonetheless described as “atypical” just because docs don’t see them as typically in males, and are much less more likely to be taken critically, although 44 p.c of ladies will develop heart disease in some unspecified time in the future of their life and one in 5 ladies will die from it.

“We’ve got used the male mannequin for analysis, for remedy, because the gold commonplace,” mentioned Dr. Jennifer Mieres, a heart specialist with Northwell Well being and co-author of the e book “Coronary heart Smarter for Girls.” This has “led to continued misrepresentation, misdiagnosis, under-recognition of coronary heart assault in ladies.”

In every chapter of “All in Her Head,” Dr. Comen interviews physicians who’re working to enhance the system, beginning with taking feminine sufferers’ complaints critically — not simply chalking up bodily signs, from chest ache to fatigue to gastrointestinal discomfort, to nervousness till all different causes space dominated out, for instance.

Dr. Comen additionally shares sensible instruments to higher companion with an imperfect system.

First, she writes, it’s important for all sufferers to belief their data of their very own our bodies and advocate for themselves. Earlier than an appointment, ask your self: What really issues you about your physique?

“Not what you assume you ought to be nervous about,” Dr. Comen writes. “Not what you assume your physician will be capable of most comfortably and simply deal with.”

Subsequent, in case you really feel anxious about your well being or that you simply’re not being heard, enlist a pal or member of the family to accompany you to appointments. This particular person can function an advocate and an additional set of eyes and ears.

Lastly, in case you don’t like your physician, discover a new one. This may be simpler mentioned than performed, she acknowledged, however a trusting and respectful relationship together with your well being care supplier is each affected person’s proper.


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