A national call to action for National Women’s Health Week (May 13–19)
Women’s health is on life support. Inequities in insurance premiums, gender bias, treatment and care must end. Women’s health doesn’t advance itself, so it’s up to women to be their own healthcare advocates.
Women have always been marginalized and treated differently by doctors and medical researchers. Although attitudes are slowly changing, women are still grossly underserved. According to the American Heart Association, one in three women die from heart disease.
Ms. Understood is a 2018 report (©Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada) that describes the “Ms. Understanding” and “Ms. Diagnoses” women face. It states, “Women’s hearts are victims of a system that is ill-equipped to diagnose, treat and support them.” Women and men present disparate warning signs before a heart attack. Hollywood depicts sudden shooting pain, clutching chest. Gasps and a stagger later, the actor drops to the floor. Women’s indicators are often subtle: fatigue, light-headedness, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, or back/shoulder/jaw pain.
Women aren’t just mini-men. Our bodies react to diseases and medications differently; most clinical trials don’t reflect this because the studies use a disproportionate number of male participants. The result is too many women dying. According Ms. Understood, heart attack signs were missed in 78 percent of females; of those who’d had a heart attack, more were likely to die or suffer a second attack.
It is a long-held misconception that women are too emotional and our health problems are psychosomatic. Male doctors can be condescending and dismissive. Women describe pain but are told to see a psychiatrist. When males voice pain, doctors are quicker to offer treatment.
Chicago author Lea Grover had skin cancers (single-cell carcinoma, melanoma); six moles were removed. “I opt for female doctors whenever possible,” said Lea. “But only one dermatologist on my plan could always see me immediately.” She went monthly but he never remembered her or her medical history. One visit, during a pregnancy, her doctor said, “It’s just a freckle! Women in your condition get hysterical over nothing.” Furious, Lea reminded him that he’d removed four cancerous and pre-cancerous moles. He rolled his eyes and left the room, leaving her to wait forty-five minutes. Finally, Lea overheard the dermatologist telling a female oncologist “You’re a woman, calm her down.”
When the oncologist glanced at Lea’s mole, she said, “It’s nothing to worry about.” Lea yanked the neck of her T-shirt down, revealing a scar from a previously removed “freckle.” She demanded the oncologist examine her. “Finally,” said Lea, “she used a magnifying glass and told the dermatologist, ‘This does look like a Spitz nevus (skin lesion).’” That’s what it took to have it removed.
Many women aren’t aware lung cancer is a more frequent killer than breast cancer—even if they never smoked. Alzheimer’s Association determined women are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion, depression, and irritability, so it’s often misdiagnosed. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. Symptoms include irritability, nervousness, sleep disturbance, infrequent menstrual periods, heat sensitivity, so they’re often told its menopause. Seventy-five percent of autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus, occur in women. It can take five years to pinpoint due to illusive signs (fatigue, trouble concentrating). MS is three times more prevalent in women and often undetected for years despite typical signs (fatigue, vision problems, tingling and numbness, pain and spasms).
More female stars are going public with their health scares. The message is clear: had it not been for gender bias in the medical community, health issues could have been diagnosed earlier.
Lady Gaga’s fibromyalgia was misdiagnosed. Selena Gomez’s lupus was misdiagnosed. Serena Williams saved her own life. Williams knew more about blood clots and the risk of a pulmonary embolism than her doctors or nurses did. Women must advocate and educate. Our best hope is becoming a unified voice.
National Women’s Health Week is May 13–19. During that time the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity convened by Hadassah will hold its second annual summit in Washington, DC. The Coalition’s 28 members include the American Heart Association, Black Women’s Health Imperative, WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s, N.O.W., Planned Parenthood and other organizations fighting for gender equity in medical prevention, research, funding, and quality care.
With over 700 chapters across the country, Hadassah has members in every congressional district. On May 17, over 300 Hadassah members and supporters will participate in Hadassah’s Day on the Hill, meeting with members of Congress to advocate for Hadassah’s concerns on women’s health equity, gun control and for Israel’s security and stronger US-Israel relations.
Women’s health cannot advance itself but together we can raise awareness of women’s preventive health services. When we educate ourselves, communities and public officials, we can drive policy changes. By uniting to fight for health equity we save lives.
Ellen Hershkin is the national president of Hadassah.