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Pain & Women: Overcoming Biases

The prevalence of and tactics to deal with gender bias in chronic pain management.

Terri Leichty
Reviewed by 
Dr. Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D
July 6, 2021
 min. read

It’s unfortunate, but many women have experienced it. Maybe you have too. 

You visited a doctor and tried to tell him about the pain you’ve been experiencing. It doesn’t matter the type of pain. He brushed you off, claiming that it must be related to your menstrual cycle, PMS, lack of sleep, unhealthy diet, or something along those lines. You left feeling unheard and dissatisfied with no hope of your pain going away.

Now ask yourself: if a man claimed he was in pain, would the same doctor have reacted similarly?

The fact is that women are treated differently than men when it comes to health. This has been the case throughout history, and, although there is more awareness these days and change on the horizon, it’s still a problem many women face.

This article will cover how gender bias negatively impacts women and their health. It will also explain how different factors throughout American history have led to a dismissive cultural outlook on women and chronic pain.


Gender Bias & How It Affects Women’s Health

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines gender bias as “a variety of stereotypical beliefs about individuals on the basis of their sex, particularly as related to the differential treatments of females and males.”

In other words, gender bias is when one gender is preferred over another or when someone receives different treatment than someone else because of their sex.

Whether it’s intentional or not, gender bias occurs in healthcare. In fact, TODAY conducted a survey in 2019 that found that 31% of females polled who suffered from a chronic pain condition felt they had to “prove” their symptoms to their physician compared to 19% of males.

When a healthcare provider doesn’t believe the pain a woman feels is real, they (the healthcare provider could be either a man or woman) do her a serious disservice (to say the least). In many cases, she won’t receive the same kind of care that a man would receive. This can lead to negative outcomes, even death.

While it might come across as malicious, in many instances the bias isn’t intentional. Instead, it’s typically the result of outdated, incorrect, and deeply ingrained habits and beliefs. For much of history, medical science assumed that male and female bodies were the same except for their reproductive organs, which led to most testing and research being performed on males. This exclusion from clinical trials and studies means that doctors know less about women. So, in many cases, the bias stems from ignorance.

No Love Lust: The Female Body & Bias  

One off-base, but pervasive, belief in society is that females and their bodies are responsible for men’s wrongdoings. Even Eve was responsible for Adam’s original sin according to some interpretations of the bible. This kind of bias can lead some people – including healthcare providers – to unconsciously be inclined to think that women can handle, maybe even deserve, any pain they feel for causing men to “sin.”  In turn, the diagnosis and treatment process can be harder than it already is for the woman with chronic pain who visits her doctor.

This kind of attitude towards the female form can also lead women to feel ashamed of their own bodies.  And shame leads to ignorance, which doesn’t help matters. If a woman doesn’t understand her body and how it works, it becomes much harder for her to explain her symptoms to a physician.

Women Have Health Needs Beyond Just Pregnancy

Although most women, unlike their counterparts, have been given the incredible ability to carry and deliver babies, there has been a tendency for healthcare providers to focus primarily on this and not necessarily on the other aspects of a woman's health. We see this when a woman makes it a priority to visit her Ob/Gyn during her pregnancies but doesn’t prioritize regular wellness visits for her own self-care. 

In many ways, most of the healthcare a woman receives during her lifetime is related to pregnancy and reproduction. While this focus is paramount, it’s also important to realize that a woman has many other health needs outside of just pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause. If the focus is always just on reproduction, other ailments may be left undetected and untreated.

Moving Forward: What Can Be Done Differently

Gender bias in healthcare can be countered – and hopefully one day eliminated – by creating awareness and attempting to alter habits at the physician-level. Doctors should be encouraged to ask patients open-ended questions that might result in more complete explanations of symptoms. They should also challenge themselves to examine the questions they ask, inquiring whether they would ask the same question to the opposite gender or not (potentially catching their own bias).

Using checklists to standardize the questions that are asked to both genders might also be helpful to reduce biased questioning. Moreover, providing doctors with gender bias training would likely be beneficial, as would putting them in diverse groups so they can question each other and discuss instances of possible gender bias.

There are also steps that women themselves can take to help avoid and overcome bias in the doctor’s office. First, you can look for healthcare providers who are compassionate, empathetic, and attentive. This may mean meeting with multiple doctors before finding the right one for you. If a doctor doesn’t listen to you or take you seriously, move on and try someone new. Consider reading online reviews which can shed light on doctor behavior.

It can also be a good idea to research multidisciplinary centers that offer numerous types of treatments and approaches all in one place. This can be helpful in mitigating gender bias because with so many different professionals examining your issue, any bias that one physician puts forth is more likely to be challenged by another.

Women can also strive to make themselves heard by being more vocal. This can be challenging given that many females are taught from a young age to be docile, accepting, and “good.” You might find it hard to be assertive and persistent, but in the case of your health, it’s imperative that you speak up and insist that the doctor listen to you. Advocate for yourself. Get second (and third) opinions if needed.

Finally, it can also be helpful to keep a log of the symptoms you’re experiencing to show your doctor. This will make it harder for them to dismiss you as they’ll be able to see the “proof” right before their eyes. Remember that the relationship you have with your physician should be collaborative (a partnership). If they don’t take you seriously, search for a doctor you can trust. 

How To Get The Support You Need

Having your chronic pain dismissed by a doctor can be very frustrating and disheartening.

Rest assured that your lack of a diagnosis and/or treatment isn’t your fault. It may simply be the result of different, long-standing cultural assumptions and beliefs that your doctor has internalized. There may be gender bias at play, although not necessarily intentionally.

So what can you do to overcome this? Who can help you with the pain you feel?

Consider Lin . A remote health care program that you can access from the convenience of your home, Lin will pair you with a personal health coach who will work with you to develop and implement an effective care plan to tackle your pain. Unlike other health solutions, Lin offers a holistic model of care that ensures you work with a compassionate healthcare provider. Your coach will be with you every step of the way, empowering you to get the care you need delivered in the considerate, non-biased ways you deserve. Reach out to Lin today and experience what better feels like.

Start finding real relief from chronic pain today - give Lin a try.

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