By Chloe Bernabei
The COVID-19 pandemic broke down the Canadian healthcare system in a way never seen before. The lack of staff, ventilators, and PPE, as well as the overwhelming amount of uncertainty, was on full display for the public to see. The cracks in the Canadian healthcare system were coming through. Although it always existed, the pandemic brought the issue of gender inequality into the spotlight. Many women across the country share similar experiences of feeling overlooked, silenced, and underserved by healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, I was one of them.
Ever since I was a teenager I have struggled with women’s health issues. I was dismissed by multiple medical professionals, telling me I simply needed to “suck it up” and that “I was young so I must be healthy.” That’s when I decided to tell my story on social media and see if anyone had experienced something similar. The number of responses I received was overwhelming. Women came to me with a variety of health conditions and experiences, however, there was one commonality between them- they had all felt that they had experienced a sort of “medical misogyny”.
“The stereotype about women being oversensitive to pain, or exaggerating it for attention, is deeply rooted in misogyny. But it’s also dangerous and puts women’s lives at risk every day” -NeuPath Centre for Pain and Spine
Rachel Arnold is a twenty-three-year-old student at York University. After having a number of seizures since the age of thirteen she was diagnosed with epilepsy. By fourteen she was maxed out on all her anti-epileptic medications, which were only causing her more seizures. Her family pleaded with her neurologist to decrease her medications, but they refused.
Arnold’s father began to notice a pattern in her seizures, they only occurred during times of ovulation and menstruation. In desperation for an answer, her father conducted his own research and found a condition called catamenial epilepsy, which describes worsening seizure activity due to hormones at times of mensuration. They brought this diagnosis to her neurologist who simply called it “pseudoscience”. After the condition was shot down by many medical professionals, she has since found a new neurologist who specializes in catamenial epilepsy and was formally diagnosed.
Susannah Davis is a mother of three from Vaughan, Ontario. After migraines that wouldn’t go away, confusion, and lethargy she went to the doctor. The doctor simply told her that it was mental illness and “she needed to get outside more”. Shortly after, Davis had a stroke while working, and two months later, she had a second. She continues to feel the effects of the stroke, saying she has a droop in her face to this day.
Why does this continue to happen?
Unfortunately, these stories are all too common and tend to be more prevalent in females experiencing women’s health issues. In a study conducted by BMC Women’s Health on patient satisfaction with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), they found that a high percentage of women fail to be diagnosed sufficiently and many are dissatisfied with the information given to them about the syndrome.
So why is this happening to so many women across the country? Emma McIlveen Brown, an ER doctor based out of St. John’s Newfoundland, says gender inequality in the medical workplace may have something to do with it. Through research at the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians Academic Symposium, McIlveen Brown says that many female emergency physicians are subject to microaggressions. For example, she noticed that nurses tend to prep trays for male physicians and not for females. However the most obvious example of gender inequality in the medical workplace is the pay gap. The Canadian Health Network utilized 2016 Census of Canada data linked to CRA taxation files to estimate the gap in earnings between male and female physicians. Females are paid far less than men in every province with data.
Paving the way towards a more equitable future
Compared to other developed countries, Canada ranks second-last in healthcare system performance according to The Commonwealth Fund.
So how can we begin to close the health gap and move towards a more equitable healthcare system? McIlveen Brown says that initiatives to encourage diversity in the workplace are a great step forward.
“I think even if we have just more diversity in general, more racial diversity, diversity in terms of sexual and gender minorities, diversity in terms of everything, the more of the emergency physician population looks like the population they are treating the better care we will be able to provide”. -Emma McIlveen Brown
McIlveen Brown also says that including women in more medical research will pave the way for a more equitable future, as many health conditions manifest themselves differently in females than males. For example, heart attacks often present themselves in males as the typical sharp chest pain. However, in many women, heart attacks present themselves as shortness of breath, which can easily be overlooked.
Davis and Arnold add that advocating for yourself is key in navigating the current healthcare climate. They encourage women to use their gut instinct, seek multiple opinions, and do their own research.
“One little question can save your life. One little test.” -Susannah Davis