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Doctors Must Take Women Seriously


What if you went to the doctor with a serious problem and you were ignored, or even accused of making up your condition?

This is, unfortunately, the reality for many women: they go to the doctor with a medical complaint, and are ignored, have their concerns minimized, or get accused of lying.

What prompted me to write about this today is that just an incident happened to a friend of mine yesterday. Currently, she is facing a number of medical problems. She has been inexplicably losing her balance, as well as experiencing hand tremors, frequent headaches, and persistent fatigue. She also has a history of mental illness, including borderline personality disorder and dissociative episodes.

It had been over a year since her last dissociative episode, so she was alarmed to discover she experienced one recently–losing all memory of a three-day period. According to the people she was with during the lost time, nothing out of the ordinary transpired except that she slept more than usual. Even so, to suddenly lose all recollection of multiple days caused her to panic–it was a clear regression in her mental state, possibly brought on by the stress of her newly-developed medical problems as well as other stressors in her personal life.

Online resources suggested that sudden, unexplained memory loss was an urgent matter, and after some deliberation, she proceeded to the emergency room for guidance. There, she was confronted with mixed messages as to the legitimacy of her symptoms and concerns. The nurse who spoke with her was very kind, patient, and thorough. The doctor, on the other hand, came into the room saying she “must have partied too hard.” This doctor had no personal knowledge of her or her history, but felt comfortable making this assumption the moment he met her. He then told her that a couple days’ worth of a memory loss isn’t an emergency. After leaving the room, she overheard him in the corridor saying “I’d have bet money she was on drugs,” and “she’s too young to have any chronic issues.” She was, as a matter of fact, not on any drugs, and suffers from a degenerative spine condition that causes constant pain that she does her best to manage without painkillers.

Diagnosing unexplained memory loss generally involves brain scans–CT or MRI. But neither was recommended to my friend. Instead, they did urine and blood tests (likely just to check for drugs), and sent her on her way, telling her to bother her primary care doctor about things like this.

At the end of this encounter, my friend was discouraged and deflated. She felt stupid, as if she was wasting everyone’s time and had overreacted. At this point, she still doesn’t have an explanation for her memory loss, and is discouraged from pursuing a medical diagnosis because she doesn’t want to endure the humiliation of being called a liar or a hysteric.

This is not an unusual problem for women who seek medical treatment. One can find article after article after article on the subject. My own ex-wife experienced similar problems when she was suffering from conversion seizures–accused of malingering when, in fact, she had no control over what was happening to her body.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that women die from this kind of mistreatment. Patients who are constantly disbelieved, even insulted by doctors, are less likely to seek treatment in general. This allows manageable problems to worsen, sometimes to a fatal degree.

Emergency room doctors would no doubt counter that they are frequently confronted with patients who are lying–to seek drugs, attention, or for some other purpose. But that’s no excuse for automatically disbelieving someone you know nothing about. And if nurses–who spend much more time face-to-face with patients–can treat people with dignity, respect, and consideration, then so can doctors. As the saying goes, it costs nothing to be kind.

As for my friend, I hope she is soon able to get the help she needs. It surely won’t be from the hospital that treated her so rudely and dismissively.

Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid