Getting doctors to take us seriously

I woke up this morning to news that a friend is in hospital with a burst appendix. This should not have happened.

She developed the characteristic pain associated with appendicitis last week and saw an after hours doctor. She was referred to a hospital for assessment where she was examined by another doctor who decided she didn’t need further treatment. She was not offered either ultrasound or a CT scans. She was sent home.

Her doctor accepted the word of the hospital doctor and continued to work with my friend to determine what was going on. There were tests. There was pain medication and ultimately a burst appendix. All this in spite of my friend repeatedly reporting acute abdominal pain.

I can’t help wondering if women reporting pain are treated differently to men reporting pain. This is not my only recent experience of this apparent bias.

My daughter has an unfortunate history of not being taken seriously by doctors, particularly with regard to pain. As her mother, I know that she is inclined to actually be rather stoic when it comes to pain. She does not exaggerate and she’s likely to wait a while before she resorts to pain medication. I know that if she says she is in pain she means it.

And yet, time and again she has had doctors dismiss her with a shrug of their shoulders and a suggestion that she should ‘just keep an eye on it’. This week she will have surgery on her finger. It has been causing problems for a couple of years now. It is always tender and if she bumps it against anything she experiences strong, stabbing pain on the underside of the nail bed. She has repeatedly told various doctors about the problem.

Finally my daughter encountered a freshly minted doctor, filling in at the practice she regularly attends. The locum was interested enough to send her for an MRI. What it revealed was a tumour. While currently likely to be benign, this type of tumour does have the potential to become cancerous. It needs to be removed.

My daughter is understandably angry. She’s not only had years of pain in the hand, she’s had it while working through a university degree and having to type on a daily basis. She’s had it in spite of several reports to doctors who seem to have just assumed she was over stating her pain, or displaying some kind of hypochondria.

Not only that, but this is just the most recent in a series of similar events where it has taken her two, three or four visits to different doctors before she finally finds someone prepared to take her seriously. In every single case there was a serious underlying medical condition that required treatment.

How does this happen? Are doctors’ surgeries so filled with over-reporting, attention-seeking women that the rest of us get tarred with the same brush?

My daughter wonders if she would have received better treatment if she had been a man, particularly a large, football-playing man. I think she would have. I think a doctor would have assumed that any man attending the surgery and reporting acute pain in his finger had something worthy of further investigation.

If you are a doctor and you are reading this then I would like to offer this piece of advice. Please do not assume. Your opinions about female patients might have some basis in fact and I allow for that. It could be that women actually are more inclined to exaggerate their symptoms or to seek medical attention when some over the counter pain relief and a bit of rest are all that is needed. Personally, I doubt this. It is inconsistent with my own experience but my personal experience is limited and perhaps you know better.

Still, here’s the thing, even if some women (or even most women) are inclined to this type of behaviour, many of us are not. Many of us are the type of people that wait to see a doctor and possibly wait a bit too long. When we arrive at your surgery seeking your help we’ve already given time and Panadol a go. We have already been ‘keeping an eye on it’ and that is why we are now seeking your help.

You might also like to keep in mind that we have a naturally higher pain threshold than men. There’s good science on this. So when we report pain it is likely to be more serious, not less.

I think it’s just possible that there is a long history of characterising women unfairly. We used to be treated for ‘hysteria’, a mysterious condition thought to be caused by our womb roaming our body and creating mood swings. In recent years the assumption that our menstrual cycle will result in strange and irrational behaviour every month has become so widely accepted that it now gets used as a criminal defence. The truth is that most of us manage to live our lives without turning into raging lunatics once a month.

Menopause is characterised by some as an onset of permanent mood swings that are as suddenly changeable as New Zealand weather patterns. Which is odd, given that I now keep company with a circle of post menopausal friends who clearly manage entire days, weeks and months of sensible behaviour.

Enough.

Women are not over emotional. We are not, by nature, moody, unreasonable, attention-seeking drama queens. Most of us are just like men in this regard; capable of experiencing the full spectrum of human emotions and expressing them in appropriate ways. The exceptions are just that. Getting doctors to understand this is not just about better bedside manner. It is about saving lives.

My daughter’s cyst could have become a tumour. My friends appendix has burst and she is now dealing with the risk of long term health consequences because of it. Head to any cancer forum and you will read story after story of women that were told a lump was nothing to worry about only to discover it was a tumour. We’re not making this stuff up!

As patients I think we also need to be aware that this bias exists. I wish it was as easy as saying to a doctor, ‘Do you think you might take me more seriously if I was a man with these symptoms?’ I am known to be what my husband politely refers to a a ‘forthright’ but even I would find this kind of comment too confrontational. There are gentler ways to achieve the same outcome.

Perhaps it would be a good idea if we enter a doctor’s surgery with a clear idea of what we want and refuse to leave until we get it. Being able to ask for a scan or some other form of diagnostic test can be difficult. We want to trust our medical professionals. We feel rude challenging their diagnosis.

I have found that it can be useful to frame this kind of request as a need for reassurance. This doesn’t challenge your doctor’s expertise. It can also be useful to ask your doctor to consider alternatives. Yes, a second opinion is an option but it is also both time consuming and expensive, and there is no guarantee that you’ll be treated any better by another doctor.

So here, in the interests of better health care, are my suggestions for questions to ask your doctor when you feel like you’re getting the ‘silly woman’ treatment:

I have been worried about this and I would really feel a lot better if I could have an x-ray (ultrasound, bone scan, blood test etc).

I know you don’t recommend having any kind of testing for this but I’d like one anyway.

May I please have a referral for an ultrasound? And if your doctor replies that they do not think you need one: I appreciate that but I would like one anyway.

What should I do if I still have the same symptoms in a couple of days? (Next week? Next month?)

What else might be causing this? 

None of these questions are rude or discourteous in any way. You’re just asking for what you want. Of course asking for what you want can feel like hard work in an environment where you know you might be dismissed as over reacting, simply because of your gender.

Which is precisely why I think we should all get a lot better at doing it.

 

 

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