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'Underfunded, Under-Researched, Underrepresented: How women's health is neglected in medicine'

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'Underfunded, Under-Researched, Underrepresented: How women's health is neglected in medicine'

For too long, women’s suffering has been dismissed by doctors and medical professionals, and I won’t stand for it. It is time to bring awareness to women’s health once and for all.

Since the age of thirteen, I have been visiting the doctors about my periods. For years I have suffered with severe pain and extreme bleeding, leaving me crippled with pain in my bed for days. I am now seventeen and, after three emergency hospital visits and what feels like a thousand phone calls and doctor’s appointments, I am still suffering with what has now been labelled as suspected endometriosis.

For those that don’t know, the World Health Organisation defines endometriosis as “a disease in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus” – doesn’t sound so serious, right? Wrong.

To demonstrate the extremity of the effects of the condition, I took the time to come up with a list of commonly reported symptoms:

  • Chronic pelvic pain
  • Painful periods
  • Heavy periods/ prolonged bleeding
  • Infertility
  • Back pain
  • Pain during and after sex
  • Depression

And these are just a few.

In doing my own research into the condition, with being given little guidance from my doctors, I have found an underwhelming lack of research, funding and public knowledge about endometriosis, which has resulted in mass misunderstandings and misdiagnosis. In England, it takes on average 8 years to get a diagnosis – this is the same amount of time it took to get an endometriosis diagnosis a decade ago.

But why is this?

The gender bias in medicine became painfully apparent to me in doing this research, as there is a long history of women’s pain and problems being dismissed due to the stigmatization of women’s reproductive and gynaecological health.

Women’s Pain

There is evidence proving that women suffer from blatant inequality in healthcare, with reports of pain being ignored, overlooked, and delegitimised. A 2014 study by the University of Gothenburg showed that women in A&E are less likely to be taken seriously than men, with their cases less often being classified as urgent, and frequently wait longer to see a doctor. What also shocked me was that women are repeatedly written off as psychiatric patients when reporting with pain, often being given anti-anxiety medication as their only treatment.

This is an absolute disgrace.

There is an inherent gender bias in medicine, and there has been throughout history, with women consistently being offhandedly dismissed by medical professionals as hysterics. How can we, in the 21st century, still be correlating a woman’s physical pain with her mental state?

Women’s Reproductive Health

Now, it is no secret that there is deeply ingrained stigma surrounding women’s health problems in our society. However, this doesn’t explain away the shameful lack of acknowledgement of these issues. I understand that we have come far with discussing women’s issues – many girls and women now feel more open to do so. But it is those in the world of medicine who really dictate what happens.

The lack of research into issues such as endometriosis, PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome) is claimed to be because these conditions are too complex, with reports of symptoms being too varied. Doctors feign ignorance by claiming that the lack of evidence and research surrounding these conditions is reason for their lack of diagnosis – but surely this means they should get more funding to be researched and better understood?

There is five times more research and funding into erectile disfunction (which affects 19% of men and rarely affects their quality of life) than into PMS, affecting 90% of women. Grants for research into PMS have even been rejected on the grounds that the condition does not exist.

And the only reason for this is blatant ignorance.

An inquiry into endometriosis done by the UK’s APPG in 2020 showed that 72% of sufferers of endometriosis were not given any written information when they were diagnosed, being left without any knowledge or advice about their condition. 95% of participants said that their endometriosis had impacted their wellbeing negatively, and 81% said that it had impacted their mental health.

For the few women that get a diagnosis, they are left in the dark, with no knowledge about what they are suffering from, and with little or no support to help with the negative impacts of these conditions.

Doctors and medical professionals need to bring about, not only more funding and research, but also more public awareness. The inquiry also showed that 54% of people do not know what endometriosis is, as well as 64% of women between the ages of 16 and 24. If young girls are not aware of the condition, this could hinder their ability to get help for themselves if they are suffering.

This lack of understanding also affects sufferers, as many frequently miss school or work due to the symptoms of endometriosis, with 42% saying they had time off school because of their symptoms, and 12% missing exams.

I am one of these people.

When I was in year 11, I missed large chunks of the school year, having to have a phased return back to school when exams started. Not only was I overwhelmed by the exams like everyone else, but I was also managing my symptoms, for which I was given no pain relief and near to no advice other than to “take it easy”.

I struggle to believe that, in this day and age, women and girls are still being ignored. Nobody should have to miss out on their education, their work, their life because of a problem that could easily be helped. The gender bias in medicine is because of blatant neglect and ignorance, on the part of both professionals in medicine and wider society, who continue to uphold the stigma surrounding women’s health. I am aware that we have made more progress in recent years and for this I am extremely grateful, but we cannot stop there. We need to act on this, to raise more awareness, to fight to be heard and treated as equals when it comes to our health.

For anyone suffering with their periods, I urge you to talk to your GP, and there is information or support on Endometriosis UK for anyone suffering, where you can also make donations and do fundraising to raise money for the cause.

I also advise you to talk to your friends and family about these issues, as it could help others to talk about their own problems and concerns.

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