Today is International Women's Day, and as I consider the seismic shifts that have occurred of late in the realms of business, arts and politics, I'm buoyed by the belief that women's voices are finally being heard, inequity is being called out and change is coming. Once untouchable icons are falling, industries are being reshaped, and a new era has begun — except in my universe: the health sector.
I've experienced first-hand the feelings of not being believed by a physician, of feeling disrespected and being infantilized. In each instance, I found myself wondering if it's just me? However, amidst this emerging conversation that #MeToo and #TimesUp have inspired, a fascinating separate dialogue is gaining prominence as more women share their stories of discrimination, inequitable treatment and frustration at not being able to receive timely, appropriate and respectful access to health care.
What had begun as self-wondering organically spilled over into conversations with my friends and colleagues as media worldwide gradually started to report on these stories. Judging by the overwhelming response, these issues resonate on a scale that was once hard for me to believe.
Whether it's: the patient whose unimaginably miserable hyperemesis gravidarum symptoms are diminished as general morning sickness; the one-in-10 women suffering from painful endometriosis made to endure wait times ranging from seven to 10 years to receive a diagnosis; the countless number of women worldwide who are dismissed as hysterical when seeking help for their severe, chronic pain symptoms. They're told that it's all "in your head", and are more likely to have their doctor refer them to a therapist than a pain clinic.
The examples are innumerable, and once you've become awakened to the phenomenon, you start to notice its pervasiveness.
We know that when women are healthy, all of society benefits.
To understand part of what got us here, one only needs to appreciate that just 30 years ago, women weren't included in most healthcare and research studies. Or that even though women and men are physiologically different, many prescription drug therapies and treatments still in use today were disproportionately studied on men.
But historical inequities aside, it's especially problematic that there's no corresponding funding body for women's health research. Combine that fact with the grossly disproportionate level of investment in women's health research funding versus men, and it's pretty easy to see how women have been systemically set up to receive the short end of the stick.
We know that when women are healthy, all of society benefits. There is undisputed evidence that healthy women mean healthy communities, not just in regard to overall wellness, but also socially and economically.
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While I'm pleased to see fractures in the current status quo emerging, I recognize there's a significant distance to go in the pursuit of respect, equity and access in women's health.
Ask more questions. Share what you learn. Educate your allies and demand more. It needn't be an exercise in physician-shaming, male-bashing or levying historical judgment. Instead, it's the recognition of unconscious biases and how this moment in time, which is growing into a movement, has room for everyone to participate because the benefits unequivocally serve us all.
For all the women in your life, be they partners, mothers, sisters, cousins, friends or daughters, the door has finally been cracked open, and by being ruthless about communicating the facts on women's health, regardless of the barriers we can kick it wide open.
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