Medical Bias and Gender

Bailey Layish | Staff Writer

When it comes to medical bias, many people immediately think of medicine as being a historically male-dominated profession. Although the lack of women in the medical field is still a major issue, the bigger issue with medical bias has to do with female patients. Because medicine is historically male-dominated, little research has been done into proper treatment for female patients, and as such, they are more commonly misdiagnosed. On average, women wait longer to see a doctor, are less commonly prescribed pain medication, and their symptoms are taken less seriously. This is an even bigger problem for patients of color, and especially women of color. Gender and racial biases among medical professionals affect how patients are treated every day–and can have lethal consequences if patients are improperly diagnosed or treated.  

Generally speaking, women are less likely to be taken seriously by doctors, less likely to receive proper diagnoses, and less likely to receive pain medication than male patients. Studies have shown that women are often not taken seriously in emergency departments, waiting longer to see a doctor, and are classified as “urgent” less frequently. One woman died after waiting five hours for help after calling 911 because the operator ignored her complaints. Women also receive less medication to treat pain, as cited in one study, because “women complain more than men; women are not accurate reporters of their pain; men are more stoic so when they do complain of pain, ‘it’s real.’” This bias against the reliability of women’s complaints affects how doctors practice medicine: patients treated by female doctors have lower mortality rates and lower readmission rates than those treated by male doctors

Medical bias is even worse for Black and Hispanic patients, and especially women. Often, doctors do not take their pain seriously and will even prioritize white patients receive procedures. One study found that Black and Hispanic patients were less likely to receive kidney transplants and received lower quality of care in basic clinical services, resulting in a greater mortality rate. Another study found that Black patients were less likely to receive surgical treatment for lung cancer and as a result, were more likely to die sooner than white patients with the same symptoms. Additionally, Black patients are 29% less likely to receive painkillers than white patients. This is likely due to the racial bias that Black people are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than white people, which has repeatedly been proven false. These racial biases result in improper treatment for people of color, resulting in an increased mortality rate. 

Although most of the bias against female patients and patients of color can be attributed to racial and gender biases among doctors, another significant reason for medical bias comes from medical research itself. From a historical medical perspective, the “ideal” patient is a 70kg (150lbs) white, cisgender, male. As a result of this, medical ailments and treatments are reflective of the symptoms present in a white male. However, many diseases show different symptoms in men and women, such as heart attacks: for men, the most common symptoms of a heart attack are chest pain and shortness of breath, but for women, symptoms can include dizziness, nausea, and exhaustion, as well as chest pain. For most of history medical research focused on men as primary test subjects. This was largely because women were thought to be too hormonal, which might affect trial results, or that they could get pregnant during the trial, again skewing results. Even studies specifically intended to focus on how diseases affect women do not need to include women in their trials. Because of this lack of research done on women, women are typically viewed as smaller versions of men, which may result in improper medication, dosage, and diagnosis. 

It is essential to rethink the idea of men and women as physiologically equal. Men and women are fundamentally different on a molecular level, and need to be treated as such medically. It is important to focus research on how drugs and diseases affect women as opposed to men and tailor treatments accordingly. Racial and gender biases must be addressed in medical training in order to better treat patients and broaden scientific research.