Despite our standard of healthcare constantly evolving and improving, Sarah O’Mahony shines a light on the knowledge deficits suffered by women at the hands of the medical world.
Inequality across borders
When you think of gender inequality in healthcare, your mind may land on images of women and girls in poorer countries. You see emotive imagery. They might be experiencing limited access to general healthcare, period poverty, lack of family planning support and more.
It’s easier for governments, corporations and society as a whole to place the blame on the lack of resources. This way they can throw money at the problem hoping it will disappear. Instead, they should focus on the stigma and taboo that is at the root. This stigma is not unique to developing countries but rather, crosses all borders.
It’s also important to note that we, those of us living in richer countries, cannot solve these systemic issues abroad by merely sending money their way. Ireland has a long history of donating money to religious missionaries in Africa. Donating to Trocaire during Lent has become an integral part of Irish culture. Approaching the issue with a fix-all mentality is a non-solution, falling within the same ballpark as voluntourism, a common example of which is customary visit to India organised by the HOPE Foundation for secondary-level students. Although I am a simp for digression, I won’t dive too deeply into the coloniser mentality underpinning this custom and the endless list of its repercussions. A whole other article could be written on this – stay tuned.
My point is this; social stigma and bias exist at home and abroad and is the main cause of the healthcare gap. However, this is not communicated in mainstream media. I believe we are too distracted by surface level charity. Rather than searching for the most run-down hospital in West Africa for the snappiest sound bite, how about tackling the problem at its root? Improving educational resources, research and tackling the stigmas attached to women’s health could provoke real and substantial change.
Ireland’s relationship with women’s health
Reading Irish history is akin to counting how many ways we can control women’s bodies. From the mother and baby homes to abortion to the cervical cancer scandal, Ireland has a tainted past of how it views women’s bodies. Beneath the supposed calm there is an underbelly of negligence. The HSE, for one, have thrown around non-disclosure agreements and even after making various financial settlements, they have failed to admit to wrongdoing; The most notable of which being Vicky Phelan’s 2.5 million settlement from the state. Currently, Phelan seeks treatment in the United States.
Rather than a hiccup in Irish society, to me, this appears to be a trend. In 2017, I was in UCC’s Kane building toilets during a taster physics week. As I looked in front of me, I noticed that the door of the toilet was covered in writing about the then upcoming abortion referendum. A student had written about their abortion experience. Sadly, their only option was to travel overseas to receive it in England. It seems Ireland’s attitude to women’s health has always been that you are better off abroad. Every year, women travel to countries like England and Romania because they cannot access vital surgery here. It’s clear that even now, Irish society demonstrates an overwhelming lack of understanding and empathy for the female experience.
Discussing the pill, its side effects and the implications involved may be the first big decision one is faced with on their reproductive health journey. The hormonal contraceptive pill is marketed as a ‘lifestyle’ drug so it often features very early on in women’s lives. It may be hard to voice your concerns and preferences at a young age; especially if your GP is male and a parent or guardian is present. I for one have only recently found my voice when speaking up with my doctor. Some may even question if the system is set up to encourage one to make informed decisions about their reproductive health?
Judging from the experience of my friends and wider circle of peers, it is more common for the pill to not agree with you than the other way around. While some can try a non-hormonal IUD or investigate other options, this is often not a viable option for people. Instead, many stay on the pill despite debilitating side effects. It is also common knowledge that doctors fail to listen to concerns about the pill’s effects. Bit of a shitshow if you ask me.
Nausea, fatigue and spotting are just a few examples of the experiences that are regularly dismissed. Not to mention anxiety and depression which can be devastating in all respects. ‘A fog lifting’ was described to me by someone who came off the pill due to personal concerns. It appears you must be threatening dangerous action before your mental health concerns are taken seriously. Either way, the theme is abundantly clear.
Doctors will make no pains about brushing you off. I almost feel like a bad feminist speaking negatively of the pill; something that allowed women to greatly advance in society. Yet the flashing red lights are becoming harder to ignore.
We know medical science understands more about the male body than the female. This means that one woman’s singular experience often does not carry enough weight in the medical world. This theme carries on throughout our lives. Hormone replacement therapy is a medication often prescribed to women going through menopause. However, women who have had breast cancer cannot take it. This is the experience of one in nine women in Ireland. Also, these women often struggle with menopause more than others as cancer therapies can worsen the symptoms. Again, what a shitshow.
The figures speak for themselves, we are not taken seriously enough.
The word hysteria comes from the Greek word meaning uterus. It is hard to imagine that this culture of dismissal can be traced back 2,400 years to Ancient Greece. Often, doctors are faster to label women as hypochondriacs and are more likely to refer them to a counsellor than a specialist for pain management. There are health struggles that can occur at any point in our lives where we as women too often meet incredible resistance. An example of this is endometriosis.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to endometrium grows outside of the womb. It is a chronic illness that can take on average nine years to even diagnose in Ireland. The symptoms of intense pain, nausea and fatigue can be dismissed as ‘normal period symptoms’ by doctors and are often similar to an abundance of other health conditions. It affects 10 percent of women globally with celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Daisy Ridley and Molly Mae also diagnosed with it.
Two months ago, I had to Google its definition. I see now that this is due to the lack of awareness surrounding the condition. There is an extreme deficit of research into treatments and solutions to many chronic illnesses that affect women, another example of this being PCOS. It worries me that the number of women who suffer from these conditions are so high in Ireland, yet many do not even know they have it. I fear that if it was an issue that affected men, we would have a greater understanding of it and be closer to a solution.
There is still hope
Don’t be overwhelmed or pessimistic on what this means for you. Although the healthcare gap is a prominent and multi-faceted issue in our society, education and awareness is the way forward. Doctors cannot know everything and along with society, they will change given compassion and resources. The main goal is to encourage engagement in this topic so we improve our communities.
No one should suffer at the hands of a system that can be improved. Future developments in research, greater priorisation in healthcare and the ever maturing view of women in society will one day help to bridge the gap dividing health across genders.