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A Danish Study Found Women Are Diagnosed Later Than Men. Here's Why That's Not Surprising.

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Paige Wyant, The Mighty’s Chronic Illness Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

A new study of health data from 6.9 million Danish people revealed that women are diagnosed an average of four years later than men for the same diseases.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications in Feb. 2019, analyzed hospital admissions from Danish people over two decades. On average, women were diagnosed with cancer about 2.5 years later and metabolic diseases about 4.5 years later than men.

“We’re not just looking at one disease here, we’re looking at all diseases and we are looking at an entire population, from cradle to grave,” lead author Søren Brunak from the University of Copenhagen told Reuters Health.

Clearly, there is an issue that needs to be addressed regarding women’s diagnoses, and early intervention when symptoms arise.

But are these results surprising?

The researchers behind the study thought so. Brunak said, “(This) actually surprised us quite a lot. Men generally have a tendency to get to the doctor later… So presumably the difference in onset is even larger.”

Yet I would hazard a guess that the majority of people who live with a chronic illness or other health condition are not surprised in the least – especially those who identify as women.

Though the study wasn’t designed to explain the reasons behind the differences in diagnosis times, we don’t have to look far to find numerous examples of women being mistreated, brushed off or ignored in medical spaces. This particular study may be new, but the narrative is not.

Gender stereotypes have played a role in women’s healthcare (or lack thereof) for centuries. Throughout history, women have been diagnosed with “hysteria” or told their physical symptoms are due to mental illness. Some still believe women are “exaggerating,” “being dramatic” or are “just too sensitive” when they express concerns about symptoms.

In her article “We Need to Talk About the Sexism Against Women in Healthcare,” Mighty contributor Agnes S. explained:

As there’s no obvious reason for my pain, I’m being treated like I’m just too sensitive and my pain isn’t that bad. I can’t even describe what it feels like to go to a specialist, tell them the high numbers on the pain scale I get to and have them roll their eyes mildly and follow it up with disbelieving implications I am exaggerating. Curiously, the most commonly used adjectives – ‘sensitive’ and ‘oversensitive’ – are paired with the nouns ‘woman’ or ‘girl.’

Agnes shared several other examples of how she has been dismissed by medical professionals, seemingly because she’s a young woman.”Maybe people in the healthcare system don’t even realize they’re being influenced by sexism, but that’s why we need to talk about it,” she said.

Her experiences will likely sound all too familiar to other women who struggle with health conditions, as these issues tend to be widespread.

Male patients have noticed gender biases in healthcare, too. Mighty contributor Ray Wood explained in his essay “6 Things Doctors Often Say to Women, but Not to Men” how living with Dercum’s disease, a disease that predominantly affects women, has taught him a great deal about how women are ignored or not taken seriously.

“Doctors and medical providers often make women feel that everything they are feeling is somehow ‘in their heads’ and not worthy of a doctor actually looking into their symptoms,” he wrote, adding:

I have heard and read multiple times about how a woman was really sick and doctors not taking them seriously caused some very severe medical emergencies. Even the ER staff is guilty of this sexist behavior. I have had friends who miscarried, friends that died from breast cancer, or other cancers that worsened due to a doctor not taking a woman seriously. I guess I should not be shocked, but I am.

Of course, there are damaging stereotypes about men as well that can make it harder for them to get diagnosed with and treated for certain conditions. And it’s likely the results of the Danish study can’t be 100 percent attributed to sexism against women. But we need to stop being surprised that these gender discrepancies exist (because, news flash, they do – both within and outside of healthcare). They have existed for centuries, and there are thousands of testimonies from women to back that up.

Instead, let’s focus our energies on providing better medical care to women. With later diagnoses comes later treatment, which may be less effective. Women deserve to have any health complaints thoroughly investigated and be respected, listened to and taken seriously – always.

To read more about sexism in healthcare, check out the following stories from our community:

Originally published: March 30, 2019
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