Men and women are more similar than we are different. We’re all a part of the same species, so you might expect our health needs to be more or less identical. But the reality is, men and women have significantly different risks, and require different treatments — sometimes drastically different.
This wouldn’t be so bad if we had a gender-specific, targeted approach to healthcare, but unfortunately, we have a long history of favoring male subjects in both studies and treatments. And until we fix this gender problem, it’s going to continue being an issue.
Why Men and Women Are Different
There are many gender differences that healthcare providers need to keep in mind. For starters, each gender is genetically predisposed to health conditions at different rates. For example, men are much more likely than women to develop heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. Women are much more likely than men to have strokes or osteoporosis. In addition, some differences in behavior can lead to different health outcomes; men tend to have poorer diets than women, and tend to engage in riskier behavior, leading to more injuries and death.
Men and women also respond to treatments differently. Variances in hormone levels throughout the body, the presence or absence of certain enzymes, body size differences, and metabolic differences can all impact how medications are absorbed, and how our bodies respond to them. A dosage that works perfectly for a man may put a woman in life-threatening danger.
This wouldn’t be a problem if we researched men and women equally, but there’s a massive discrepancy in our existing body of research. For a variety of reasons, scientific studies have excluded women in the past (and on a related note, minorities have been excluded as well). In some cases, it was because men were more convenient to recruit. In others, it was rooted in sexism.
In any case, scientists assumed that what we learned about white men could be applied to women and minority populations as well. So up until the early 90s, when better practices started to be applied, almost all our medical knowledge came from male-based studies. And while it’s good we’ve made progress, so much of modern medicine is derived from decades-old studies that it would require a massive overhaul to our current knowledge base to remedy the problem.
The problem may not stop there, either. For multiple reasons, men are likely to receive better medical care than women; as just a couple of examples, 66 percent of specialists are male, and men are more likely to be taken seriously when describing pain.
Correcting the Problem
So what can we do to correct the problem?
Part of the responsibility falls on scientists, and they’re addressing it sufficiently. Modern medical studies are much better about being inclusive of different populations; in fact, since 1994, there have been strict mandates in place to ensure equitable representation in these studies. There isn’t much we can do to correct the biased knowledge we’ve already gained from studies in decades past, but in a few years to a few decades, we’ll begin to close that gap.
Part of the responsibility also falls on doctors. Male doctors, especially, need to ask more critical questions of female and/or minority patients, and treat their existing medical knowledge with a grain of salt. For example, they might recommend a smaller-than-average dosage for a woman, in the absence of female-specific scientific information, or challenge the biases that might preclude them from prescribing pain medication to a woman. This is a tall order, but as new generations and more women enter leadership roles, the role of these biases will start to decline.
Finally, part of the responsibility falls on women to be their own best advocates. If you’re a woman, talk to your doctor about gender differences that may need to be taken into consideration when receiving medical treatment. If you feel you aren’t being treated fairly or asked the right questions, seek a second opinion. If you feel there isn’t sufficient information to justify your current treatment, speak up.
Fortunately, the scientific community is already taking measures to correct the gender biases that led to incomplete information. It’s going to take many years before scientists and doctors are able to make up the difference, and provide truly personalized healthcare, but we’re well on our way to that future.