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If you are a woman, a member of a marginalized group, or part of the LGBTQ+ community, you may have experienced or are currently experiencing unfair medical treatment. Not only are these experiences incredibly frustrating and dehumanizing, but they are also dangerous. 

These experiences also occur all too frequently. I wrote about just a small portion of controversial medical treatment through the history of Female Hysteria Condition; however, there are also many biases and damaging beliefs that have arisen since the study of hysteria as well as some that have been shaped by it. This time, I’m diving into some of the reasons you may have difficulty getting seen, respected, and diagnosed by medical practitioners and how to feel empowered to make decisions about your health.

Sexism in Medicine

The topic of sexism in medicine is growing more complex as individuals are able to live more individualized lives by the means of gender expression. Now more than ever, women and IAFAB (Individuals Assigned Female At Birth) are stepping away from the binary and their own gendered expectations. Sexism in medical care is a significant obstacle for many people, however, the issue is being continuously researched and more frequently addressed. The possibilities are endless for future empowerment!

In a 2018 study, it was found that .7% more women die of heart attacks than men in Florida. When treated by women practitioners, the difference decreased to .2%.

Anyone should be able to seek medical help for emergencies and feel confident that they are going to receive the care they need. However, studies such as this one show that this is unfortunately not the case for many women. Health outcomes become even more complicated by the increasing number of individuals who identify as women or are assigned female at birth but may no longer identify as a woman. One large problem here is that the difference in care for a condition as common as a heart attack is obvious just by looking at fatality statistics, but what does the difference in care look like for less obvious conditions? Chronic pain and fatigue conditions and dangerous autoimmune disorders are often overlooked and undiagnosed among women already, making this an urgent issue.

These issues all tie back to a bigger problem of sexism in the medical industry. Women’s care is systematically disadvantaged. Some reporters on this issue even go so far as to say that patients studied in medical school are assumed to be men and male-only research approaches still remain the norm for many facilities. Unfortunately, these issues are not going to change immediately just because they are damaging. There are many steps being taken through medical schools and labs to incorporate women’s studies into medical research, but the gap in information still exists. This has a significant relation to the discrepancies that still exist, which prevent women and individuals with uteruses from attaining helpful diagnoses; instead, many symptoms are attributed to hormones and anxiety. While more inclusive studies are available to medical practitioners, we must continue to press on for research, validation, and more inclusion regarding the sexist nature in medicine.

Racism in medicine

Another obvious group that experiences medical disparities in addition to sexism are Black, indeginous, and people of color (BIPOC). Although records show that individuals are getting healthier as a whole, we can see that minority groups are still being left behind. Doctors take an oath to treat patients with equity, do these numbers prove that untrue? The answer is complex but can best be presented as the systemic racism that permeates our society.

Systemic racism can be defined as racism that is embedded within laws and institutions.

Where there are white-dominated organizational systems, there are racist nuances that remain from those who developed them. The medical industry is no different; developed by white men and focused on white men. It is only natural that those who the system was built to neglect feel left behind.

The numbers are not the only source of information that convey racism in medicine. BIPOC individuals are speaking out more and more about their medical emergencies where they have been treated unfairly, invalidated, and degraded. This treatment can have dangerous consequences, as many minorities, especially black people, already feel immense distrust towards medical practitioners. As we continue to recognize the lingering racism in the medical industry, it’s time to hold practitioners accountable, and accept that although racism is not as prevalent as it once was, it is still very much present in the lives of BIPOC individuals. Even if doctors are not intentionally acting on racist premises, their actions still hurt those affected by them.

Homophobia and Transphobia in medicine

Unfortunately, two more very real disparities in medical care are homophobia and transphobia. These disparities in medicine can show up in many ways, including internalized bias from the practitioner and fear of seeking help from the patients. It’s an unfortunate reality that LGBTQ+ individuals have to take extra care in finding a doctor that is willing to meet their needs as a patient. Because this is not always an option due to economic or other circumstances, many LGBTQ+ individuals are at risk for developing HIV and other STIs, as well as cancers due to avoidance of regular preventative care like STI testing and cancer screenings. These are just three examples of the damages individuals face when unable to seek medical help.

Studies show that heterosexual medical providers, although sometimes unintentional, often prefer straight heterosexual patients over gay men or lesbian women. 

Many individuals refrained from expressing their sexual orientation to their doctors to avoid stigma, however this means they may not be recommended for services that identify certain health risks such as STI screenings. 

One in five trans or gender non-conforming  individuals has been refused care or has generally failed to receive proper treatment because of their gender identity.

We see doctors lacking the knowledge and training to treat many conditions common among cisgender and heterosexual women, so it is unsuprising to see such bleak statistics for LGBTQ+ individuals. The studies regarding these individuals are not very extensive at all, either. A lot of the scholarly articles available that discusses medical disparities based on homophobia are decades old, and many newer articles are from the LGBTQ+ community themselves. This shows that many researchers are shirking their responsibility to highlight a disadvantaged group, and in addition to this, there is very little call to action amongst practitioners; only now are these disparities receiving public attention and the beginnings of new research.

Even though bringing awareness to these issues is a step in the right direction, medical practitioners, researchers, and students need to integrate more sensitivity towards their own biases and systemic ideology into their agendas.

How to be your own advocate

With so many ways for doctors to neglect patient’s care, it is becoming more common for individuals to advocate for their own health. Even when doing so, it is still possible for bias to get in the way of proper treatment. Here are some ways to advocate for your own health:

Do your research! 

If you are looking to seek help for a specific medical concern, you may be able to find a list of practitioners on advocacy websites or organizations that focus on that specific condition

Before visiting a particular doctor, it is helpful to do research on them and possibly find testimonials or feedback on how they have (or haven’t) helped other patients.

Choose clinics/ care providers that have a clear mission

There are many reproductive health clinics, doctors offices, and hospitals that are ambiguous about what services they provide and refuse. Before making an appointment, try and find out where they stand on issues that are important to you.

Don’t be afraid to speak up or report mistreatment

If you believe you weren’t treated correctly or have concerns that were not addressed, it is best to speak up for yourself. 

With so much bias in the medical industry, we must become our own advocates; always keep pushing for answers from medical practitioners

If find that you may have been a victim to medical malpractice, you can report this to the department of health

Connect with those in your community

Whether you want to get in touch with an online support group or find local individuals who can empathise with your difficulties, having other people to lend support is always helpful.

Local communities may be able to offer advice on which doctors can offer help, as well as which ones to stay away from

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Author: Bella

Bella is a Planned Parenthood intern in Florida. She is a Commercial Entrepreneurship student at FSU.

This post is part of our efforts to lift up the voices in our community. Here we feature content by volunteers, patients, partners, activists and others with a stake in improving health care, equality and justice in Florida and beyond!