Posted on Jun 05, 2023, 4 p.m.
Historically and globally, humanity’s caregivers and nurturers have primarily been its women. For far too many women, however, the modern medical industry has abjectly failed in its obligation to repay in kind the care that women have provided for millennia. This is, unfortunately, particularly true when it comes to women’s reproductive health.
A vast and growing body of research, for example, illuminates the persistence of gender bias in healthcare today. Overcoming such biases is an urgent need if women are to enjoy the quality of health and overall quality of life they deserve. To meet this need, healthcare providers must begin by becoming more proactive concerning women’s reproductive health.
Marginalization and Malpractice
One of the most significant challenges that today’s healthcare providers face is in overcoming the influence of unconscious biases in their clinical practice. Even the most highly trained and conscientious of practitioners may unwittingly succumb to stereotyping and, in the process, significantly undermine patient care.
Unconscious bias may not only derive from the larger social milieu in which a clinician lives. Rather, it may originate in, or be enforced by, the practitioner’s medical training. Racialized and gendered categorization has long been a core component of health education.
Medical textbooks, curricula, and even medical journals frequently classify patients by race, for example, legitimizing, even at the subconscious level, the stereotyping of patients based on often spurious identity categories. To be sure, though biological sex certainly has a basis in physiology and can also impact the effectiveness of treatment, both race and gender are social constructs, not biological ones.
Thus, healthcare providers who are trained to classify patients according to these problematic categories risk perpetuating the marginalization that racial minorities, women, and women of color in particular face.
Unconscious Bias in Women’s Reproductive Health
Perhaps nowhere is the impact of unconscious bias in healthcare more evident than in the arena of women’s reproductive health. Many women must advocate for themselves to get doctors to acknowledge their pain by doing their own research, working with patient advocates and insisting that they be heard. This is because physicians are far more likely to downplay, disregard, or misunderstand the symptoms of their female patients. For instance, physicians frequently misdiagnose women’s symptoms as indicators of stress or hormonal fluctuations.
The prevalence of gender bias is also apparent when addressing women’s menstrual health. Practitioners may dismiss the physical and psychological distress many women face as “merely” an aspect of being a woman. Severe pain and irregular menstruation, for instance, may indicate a serious disorder such as endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), either of which may lead to infertility, especially if left untreated. In other words, unconscious bias can lead to serious health consequences for patients.
What is to Be Done?
The influence of unconscious bias is by definition deeply challenging to recognize and eradicate, especially if a healthcare provider’s medical training has reinforced these stereotypes.
In order to address these biases, it is essential that healthcare providers practice empathy and seek to understand their female patients. This is especially important considering that the healthcare worker shortage is likely to be exacerbated in coming years. There will be a growing need for both general practitioners and physicians working in specialist fields as many of these workers leave the field due to concerns over burnout or because they are reaching retirement age. Ensuring that the next generation of physicians is well-trained in empathetic practices and are aware of the effects of unconscious bias is key to ensuring women can access the reproductive healthcare they need.
Unconscious biases can undermine a healthcare provider’s ability to give quality care to their patients. This is why practitioners must understand how these biases impact their care practices, especially regarding caring for the reproductive health of their female patients.
This article was written for WHN by Charlie Fletcher who is a freelance writer from the lovely “city of trees”- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. You can find more of her writing on her Contently
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