I just finished talking to a woman about her experience traversing our paternalistic medical system. She’d been having very strange symptoms for months — dizziness, numbness and tingling in her head and hands, blurred vision. After a particularly scary episode, she went to the emergency room where the ER doctor, in her words, basically dismissed her by telling her she had none of the risk factors for a stroke — she was only 40, in good health, a nonsmoker. “It’s probably anxiety,” he told her. “Of course I’m anxious!” she said. “I have two little girls in the waiting room scared to death because they’ve never seen their mother like this and I’m scared because I don’t know what’s going on!”
Nonetheless, she left without any idea of what was going on, convinced it was all in her head. Another visit a week later to another emergency room, where this time the doctors performed a battery of tests, including a CT scan, MRI, blood work, etc. Again, nothing.
A few weeks later, with the symptoms now so bad she had to hold a coffee cup in two hands, she saw a neurologist. Again, a battery of tests. Again nothing. By now, she said, she was done with doctors. “I was feeling crazy and intimidated and I didn’t want to ask him too many questions because I didn’t want to feel like like a hypochondriac,” she said. “I just feel like they’re the doctor, they know best and I don’t have a right to question them because they went through eight years of training and I only did research online.”
Are you freakin’ kidding me?
This is a very smart, educated woman who had done her research. Research she didn’t share with the doctor, however, because of that intimidation. I wish I could tell you that this is an isolated case and she just had some bad luck but, unfortunately, I can’t.
Studies find that most patients are intimidated by their doctors, particularly women. A seminal report on this, “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women Who in the Treatment of Pain,” found that women are more likely than men to be prescribed sedatives than pain medication, even after surgery. Other studies find that women are undertreated for cardiovascular disease and arthritis, among other conditions, and are less likely to be admitted to the ICU than men — all things being equal.
The gender bias occurs among male AND female healthcare providers. Even I’ve been guilty of this, as when I went to the ER on New Year’s Day worried I was having a retinal detachment and the nurse told me to undress and put on a gown. “Um, it’s my eye that’s the problem.” “Well,” she said, “the doctor might want to listen to heart.” And like an idiot, I got undressed, which immediately stripped my own power in the relationship.
So, ladies, it’s time to get our Patientzilla on. It’s time to demand that we get the health care we want, need, and deserve. That means asking questions, doing our research, insisting our healthcare provider spend the time with us that we need, taking notes, bringing an advocate with us to the doctor office, ER or hospital.
Stay tuned for more on how you can become a Patienzilla, and why it might just save your life one day.
PS: The woman I spoke with eventually got a second opinion from a physician who thinks she has a rare form of migraine. She’s considering treatment options.