“We are sick, suffering, and even dying because people still can’t trust our knowledge of our own bodies,” notes Suzannah Weiss.
It is a persistent, often overlooked problem in medicine: women’s symptoms are often diminished and dismissed by doctors.
Now, though, a viral Twitter thread has powerfully highlighted the difficulties women face when seeking a diagnosis and treatment for their chronic illnesses.
In a tweet shared earlier this month, writer Suzannah Weiss asked women how long and how many doctors it took them to get diagnosed. Listing her own experience with 17 different doctors over an 11-month period, she “wrote down what each did to show what [patients] go through just to begin to heal.”
Weiss went on to explain that “women, people of colour, non-binary folks, and LGBTQ people with chronic illnesses are criticised for self-diagnosing, but the reason we self-diagnose is that those charged with diagnosing us are biased against us and don’t understand issues that disproportionately affect us.”
“We get called hypochondriacs when what we really are is empowered and determined to love and care for ourselves,” she said.
“We’re deemed irrational for turning to alternative medicine, but conventional MDs rush us out, dismiss our concerns, and prescribe things that make us worse.
“[And] this is a feminist issue. We are sick, suffering, and even dying because people still can’t trust our knowledge of our own bodies.”
Then, using the hashtag #MyDoctorSaid, Weiss asked for people to share the most awful things doctors have told them.
The responses were equally horrifying and illuminating.
It is a problem that seemingly impacts marginalised people of any status: earlier this year, Serena Williams explained that, while she was recovering from her emergency C-section, she suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism.
However, despite reportedly telling hospital staff what she thought was happening, she was informed that her pain medicine “might be making her confused”. And, instead of giving her the CT scan and blood thinner she repeatedly requested, doctors reportedly ignored her requests and gave her an ultrasound, which revealed nothing.
“I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,” she recalled.
Finally, she was given the scan, which revealed a number of small blood clots in her lungs – exactly as the tennis star had suspected.
“I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!” she says.
The pulmonary embolism caused Williams to suffer a number of intense coughing spells, one of which was so violent that it popped her fresh C-section wound open – and she was forced to spend the “first six weeks of motherhood unable to get out of bed”.
It is worth noting that this is not an issue which is unique to the US healthcare system (Weiss is based in America). Indeed, research in 2014 found UK women typically wait longer than men for emergency medical attention, while a 2011 study found that our reports of chronic pain were more likely to be ignored by professionals than those of men.
Meanwhile, a 51-page report by MPs has indicated that thousands of women in the UK suffering from endometriosis or fibroids feel dismissed, ignored and unable to access information and specialised treatment.
With 40% of women saying they had seen a doctor 10 times before being referred to a gynaecologist and 67% saying they obtained most of their information on the subject from the internet, the findings from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health revealed a lack of awareness around what is considered ‘normal’ menstruation and what indicates a more serious issue.
And of the 2,600 women interviewed, many reported similar experiences when it came to having their symptoms taken seriously – 42% said they did not feel they had been treated with “dignity and respect” by doctors.
MP Paula Sherriff, chair of the group, said she was “shocked” by some of the stories.
“If women cannot even get the right diagnosis and information about treatments, how can they possibly decide what is the best care for themselves?” she said.
“Women deserve every opportunity to take control of their own healthcare and this group is striving to empower women so they have this potential.
“The statistics in this report show that women are all too often dismissed by healthcare professionals when discussing their symptoms and choices. The fact that almost 50% of women did not feel that they were treated with dignity and respect is appalling.”
Yes, it’s easy to understand why we don’t always get the help we need. But nobody else is going to assume responsibility for our bodies, or know as well as us when they aren’t working as they should.
As Jennifer Lipman previously told stylist.co.uk, “we shouldn’t assume the worst – more often than not, back pain is just back pain. But nor should we feel undeserving of a doctor’s time, or let fear of coming across as demanding cloud our judgement.
“[Instead, we should] seek advice immediately, and be bloody difficult about it… after all, it may just save your life.”