Whether intended or not, gender bias exists in healthcare — and it could be affecting your health outcomes. Research shows that women often receive different treatment than men for the same symptoms.1 If you're feeling dismissed, minimized, or like no one is listening to you during a healthcare visit, you may be experiencing "medical gaslighting" — and it's more common than you might think.
We’re covering what gender bias can look like for women in a healthcare setting. And these simple tips can help you be your own best advocate and extinguish any flames of medical gaslighting that may occur at your next doctor’s appointment.
Gender Bias in Healthcare
From interactions between doctors and patients to medical research, gender bias in healthcare can impact how the healthcare system treats women vs. men. For example, a 2018 study found that doctors are more likely to view chronic pain in men as “brave” and “stoic” while viewing women as “emotional” or “hysterical”.2 Instead of believing women, some doctors assume their pain is psychological instead of physical. This means that doctors are more likely to prescribe pain medication to men than women, and could even misdiagnose the problem.3
And when pain is not taken seriously or a patient isn’t believed, this can have some pretty serious outcomes. Urgent care doctors told this MSNBC anchor that her severe chest pains were acid reflux, as one example. But it turned out to be much more serious than that as she was later diagnosed with both pericarditis and myocarditis, conditions that cause swelling and inflammation of the heart muscle and tissue.
And this woman on TikTok shares how she woke up with extreme abdominal pain and the ER doctor told her that she had a cyst on her ovaries—ovaries that didn’t exist since her hysterectomy over 10 years ago. The doctors didn’t believe her, labeled her as “anxious presenting”, and sent her home. Turns out she had appendicitis.
These incidents aren’t isolated. According to a 2019 analysis, researchers found that in 72% of cases, women wait longer on average for a health diagnosis.5
A major cause of this gendered bias is that the vast majority of medical research only involves male participants. For a long time, women were barred from participating in clinical trials to “protect them and their fetuses” from any adverse effects. And researchers also felt that women’s changing hormonal status and menstrual cycle made them poor test subjects.1
As a result, this lack of inclusivity has left a pretty sizeable gap in knowledge for many medical professionals about female, intersex, and trans health compared to male health.6 And when the healthcare system has a limited understanding of your body, this affects treatment decisions.
What Does It Mean to Be a Good Self-Advocate?
The presence of gender bias means that it’s important to be your own advocate in the doctor’s office. Being a good self-advocate means that you’re not a passive participant in your healthcare. You’re entering your doctor’s visit armed with the knowledge, tools, and confidence you need to partner with your doctor to find the right solutions for your health concerns.7
But how exactly do you do that? Here are 5 strategies for being your own best advocate:
How to Advocate for Yourself at the Doctor’s Office
1. Find a Doctor You Trust & Build a Consistent Relationship
Having a primary care doctor you trust and feel comfortable with is incredibly important. It’s crucial that you visit with this doctor regularly, at least once a year, to establish a relationship. The better your doctor knows you and your health concerns, the better they can provide care. Establishing a relationship with your doctor also helps prevent you from feeling stuck with whoever is available when a major medical concern arises.
If you don’t trust or feel comfortable with your current doctor, consider switching to a new one. Even if they’ve been your doctor since childhood or they come with qualifications that would impress anyone on paper, you aren’t obligated to continue going to them. If they’re not the right fit for you, it’s time to find someone who is.
If you’re in the market for a new doctor, do your research on in-network providers. Take a look at their bio, read their patient reviews, and familiarize yourself with their specialties. Do they have certifications or a background in the kind of care you need?
Here are the hallmarks of a good relationship with your doctor:
- You feel comfortable asking questions and voicing your concerns
- You don’t feel ignored, uncomfortable, or intimidated during your visits with them
- Your doctor makes an effort to get to know you
- You don’t have to wait months to get an appointment
2. Come Prepared
The average doctor’s visit is around 15 minutes, and it can often feel rushed, so it helps to come prepared. Before stepping into the office write down exactly what you want to talk to your doctor about or any questions you might have. Instead of drawing a blank, taking notes gives you something to look at and ensures you’re not forgetting anything.
Here’s what you might want to prepare ahead of time:
- If you’re seeing your doctor for a specific issue or complaint, take some time to list out all symptoms you’re experiencing and when they started. Write down the medications you’re taking or anything you’ve done so far to help alleviate any symptoms.
- If you’re seeing a new doctor who might not have all your test results or medical history, request to send your medical records ahead of time. Or come prepared with your own medical history that you can share in the appointment.
- If you own a wearable device, take screenshots of biometric trend data ahead of time so you can share it with your doctor during the appointment.
- Write down your family’s medical history and how that might come into play in your health. Does heart disease run in your family and you’re worried about your heart health? Make sure your doctor knows that.
Then, show up a few minutes early. This gives you time to collect your thoughts, review your notes, and come in ready to ask your questions and voice your concerns.
3. Take Notes & Ask Questions
The importance of taking notes at medical appointments cannot be understated – it can help you get the best care and outcome possible. If you’re taking notes as you go — and asking questions to clarify what you’re hearing — you can walk out feeling more informed and prepared for the next steps.
Here are some great clarifying questions to ask during your visit:
- Can you summarize what you just shared? I want to make sure I understood that correctly.
- I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say ____, can you clarify that?
- I think I heard you say ___ is the right course of action, is that correct?
- Can you tell me more about why you’re recommending ____ solution?
- What does ____ mean?
- So, just to make sure I understand, the next step is ___?
You should always feel comfortable asking questions during your doctor’s visit. This is your health and your body, and you have a right to understand what’s going on.
It’s also a good practice to write down the names and roles of everyone you’re meeting with during your appointment so you don’t forget. Make sure you’re also jotting down suggested treatment options, medications, and next steps. And when your appointment is over, don’t feel like you need to rush out immediately. Before you leave, take a few minutes to jot down everything discussed so you don’t miss any crucial details.
4. Communicate Your Concerns
If something doesn’t feel right or you have concerns about a treatment plan or decision made in your doctor’s appointment, don’t be afraid to speak up.
While your doctor is an expert in the medical field, you’re the expert of your own body. You are the only one who can understand your symptoms, your experiences, and your medical history. You bring important expertise to the table, which means your opinion and your concerns are valid and deserve recognition.
Medical visits are two-way conversations. It shouldn’t just be your doctor giving advice. You have a seat at the table in this discussion, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Need help voicing those concerns? Here are some questions you can ask:
- I’m concerned about this particular course of treatment. Are there any alternatives?
- I’m not sure ___ is an appropriate fit for me because of ____. Can you offer additional clarification or options for me given this?
- In my research, I came across ____ as a potential side effect. Can you share more about that?
- Can you tell me more about why we aren’t pursuing ____ test or ____ treatment?
- Can you help me understand _____?
- Why is ____ necessary?
Your doctor should be able to address your concerns, provide additional clarification, or, in some cases, offer a different treatment option or method. But if you still don’t feel comfortable with the decision or treatment plan after voicing your concerns, get a second opinion from a different provider.
5. Keep Your Own Records
If you move often or frequently switch medical providers then you’ve likely experienced the headache of having to move your medical records from one office to the next. And if you ever visited an urgent care center or saw a doctor on vacation, those records probably didn’t get added to your files.
This often means that the best way for you and your doctor to get a full picture of your health is for you to maintain your own medical history. It could be as simple as a note on your phone or a digital folder where you save all your medical files.
Here are some things you might want to include:
- The date of your medical appointments
- Who you met with
- The treatment outcomes/next steps
- Any notes from the appointment
Keeping personal medical records is a way for you to jog your memory so you can easily reference the outcomes of prior appointments. This is helpful knowledge to have on hand as you’re advocating for your needs at a doctor’s appointment.
And after the appointment is over, it also helps you review and check for errors in your medical bills. With your own records of the appointment, you can spot-check to make sure you’re getting charged for the right treatment. Just make sure to keep these personal medical records in a safe place, like a password-protected file or locked filing cabinet.
And as part of maintaining your medical history, you can also add your own data through a health device. These devices help you track and monitor health and wellness metrics like your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, SpO2, sleep duration, respiration rate, period tracking, and more. With this personalized data, you can take ownership of your numbers by getting a bigger picture of your health, keeping a closer eye on any concerns, and bringing that data with you to your next appointment.
The fight for greater equality in healthcare treatment and research shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of individual patients sitting on exam room tables. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done at a system-wide level. But, in the meantime, there are things you can do to help prioritize your health and ensure you’re getting the treatment and attention you deserve. And that’s by being your own advocate in the doctor’s office.
- Recognizing, Addressing Unintended Gender Bias in Patient Care. (2020, January 14). Duke Health Referring Physicians. https://physicians.dukehealth.org/articles/recognizing-addressing-unintended-gender-bias-patient-care
- Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave Men” and “Emotional Women”: A Theory-Guided Literature Review on Gender Bias in Health Care and Gendered Norms towards Patients with Chronic Pain. Pain Research & Management, 2018, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/6358624
- Schäfer, G., Prkachin, K. M., Kaseweter, K. A., & De C Williams, A. C. (2016). Health care providers’ judgments in chronic pain: the influence of gender and trustworthiness. Pain, 157(8), 1618–1625. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000536
- Westergaard, D., Moseley, P. L., Sørup, F. K. H., Baldi, P., & Brunak, S. (2019). Population-wide analysis of differences in disease progression patterns in men and women. Nature Communications, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-08475-9
- Rathjen, R. (2010, October 13). New report reveals rampant discrimination against transgender people by health providers, high HIV rates and widespread lack of access to necessary care. National LGBTQ Task Force. https://www.thetaskforce.org/new-report-reveals-rampant-discrimination-against-transgender-people-by-health-providers-high-hiv-rates-and-widespread-lack-of-access-to-necessary-care-2/
- My Patient Rights. (2022, April 28). How to Advocate for Yourself at the Doctor’s Office. https://mypatientrights.org/stay-informed/how-to-advocate-for-yourself-at-the-doctors-office/