Opinion: Your life shouldn’t depend on your doctor’s gender

Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” was recently published by Alcove Press. Follow her on InstagramFacebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

When older women patients are treated by women doctors, they are less likely to die or be readmitted to the hospital than when treated by male doctors, according to a study of patients age 65 and older recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

While the differences were modest, the researchers said closing the gap between the care women receive from women and men physicians could save the lives of 5,000 women every year.

Kara  Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo
Kara Alaimo - Courtesy Kara Alaimo

A similar 2016 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that patients in the same age range were less likely to die or be readmitted over the following month when they were treated by women.

The research comes on the heels of a 2021 study in JAMA Surgery, of patients also age 65 and older, which found that when the sex of a patient and their doctor are different, the patient is more likely to experience complications and die.

While it’s unclear whether the results are applicable to younger patients, these findings make clear that we need to take a hard look at how women patients are being treated — including how doctors respond to women’s complaints of pain.

The Annals of Internal Medicine study noted women patients might fare better with women doctors because male doctors underestimate the severity of women’s illnesses and women doctors may communicate more effectively. What’s more, women may feel more comfortable discussing symptoms they perceive as embarrassing with other women and having women doctors examine their private parts.

Plenty of other research suggests doctors often don’t take the pain of women seriously. For example, a study of emergency room patients from 2004 to 2005 found that, although women and men complained of similar levels of pain, women were less likely to receive pain medicine and waited longer for it.

I experienced this firsthand when I went to the hospital to deliver my first child in insufferable pain. But my medical team was unmoved by my complaints and tried, on the morning my daughter was born, to convince me I was not in labor and to send me home. I had to beg and plead to be admitted to the hospital for pain management; by the time an anesthesiologist was finally called to administer pain medication, he told my husband (also a doctor) I was in dire straits. I very much doubt that a man who came to the hospital in the kind of desperate pain I experienced would have been made to make a case for why he needed medical treatment.

By the time my doctor (who was a woman) was summoned by the hospital’s labor and delivery staff, she said she wasn’t sure she had time to change into scrubs. By that point, my daughter had nearly delivered herself.

Unfortunately, there’s reason to think other patients fare even worse. For one thing, I’m a native English speaker and a communication professor, which means I had the skills to forcefully advocate for myself when medical staff tried to discharge me the morning my baby was born. Not only that, but my husband was an attending physician who, at the time, worked in the hospital where I delivered, putting me in a position of privilege because he could have intervened with higher-ups if the hospital had truly refused to admit me.

And I’m White. Black patients are far less likely than White patients to receive adequate pain management and have much higher rates of maternal mortality.

This outrageous mistreatment doesn’t only affect the patients who experience it. I argue in my recent book that the stories women frequently share on social media of being gaslit by their doctors could help explain why other women are forgoing medical care altogether. For example, between 2004 and 2017 — the time period during which social networks took off — homebirths increased by 77% in the US.

The solution, of course, isn’t for women to avoid the medical system — it’s for doctors of all genders to respond to women’s complaints appropriately. Yet, as the Annals of Internal Medicine study reports, there are currently “limited opportunities for systematic medical training in women’s health in general medical curricula.” This is unacceptable. Training in how to appropriately respond to women’s complaints of pain and other symptoms should be a core part of residency programs and the other training that physicians, physician assistants and nurses receive.

The evidence is in: Women deserve better from the medical system. Schools and residency programs need to do a better job of training doctors and other medical professionals to understand and appropriately respond to complaints by women. Receiving proper medical care and pain management shouldn’t be dependent on a patient’s gender or that of their doctor.

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