Do doctors treat men and women differently with respect to pain?
Continuing our discussion on women specific issues in chronic pain/illness, I want to jump into gender and how it affects our medical treatment and ultimately our health. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever given gender much thought as it pertains to being treated in the hospital or by a doctor, until recent years. I guess I will have to admit to a bit of naiveté here, believing that medical professionals would not discriminate against me because I am a woman or look at my symptoms with skepticism because I am a woman, but I found out this is not always true.
In the very beginning of this epic odyssey I went to see the orthopedic who had done my lumbar fusion, who is male, and after several visits and a conclusion that whatever was wrong it was not surgical he pretty much brushed me aside. I remember distinctly feeling as though because he could not fix it with surgery, I was not worth his time. I must also address that the way in which the female, physician’s assistant treated me was little better. She had made me feel like if I were to lose a few pounds and adopt a brighter attitude that I would feel much better. Jump ahead a little bit after I was told I should look for a Pain Management doctor [who by the way, you’d think since Pain was in the title of the specialty that they would be more understanding] I find myself in the office of a female doctor with my daughter and to my shock, instead of an examination I am interrogated about several years of my medical history and discrepancies about past pain medicine I took and when and how much and as if that weren’t enough, she was so insulting and rude that we both sat there in chastised silence. When I got home and looked her up on one of those doctor rating sites I found out that she had a dismal score and cannot even go into some of the comments left behind. It was clear most found her to be very disagreeable and some found her down right despicable. Flash forward to present day. I think I have an excellent rheumatologist [who is female] and a good pain management doctor [who is male]. Why is she excellent and he’s only good? Because she LISTENED to me, from beginning to end, taking in every surgery, every symptom and put the puzzle pieces together instead of looking at me through only the lens of her field, [though I am sure there was some bias from her particular expertise] but she diagnosed me as a whole rather than something to take a part and dissect.
As I read one rheumatologist express it in an article in “Healthline,” doctors are not exactly eager to treat pain patients. Why? Pain is not easily treated nor are there a lot of good answers on how to treat it. Let’s face it, pain is very subjective. We could look at generic back pain among 100 patients whose symptoms fall within a range of similarity and no one person would experience the pain the same way. Some might truly feel the pain is intolerable, while others less so and continue all their normal activities, so it makes it difficult to treat chronic pain in any kind of standard way. This is much more complicated than the old adage “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” Now when you enter the world of chronic pain, it becomes even more complicated because you are dealing with a group of people whose pain has lasted 3-6 months or longer. Add to this mix something like fibromyalgia, to which there is no clear understanding, no clear way of diagnosing and no tried and true treatment or cure and no medical specialty to whom a patient can see and you can probably understand much clearer why doctors do not relish dealing with pain patients.
In case you are wondering, everything I said above can be applied to both men and women. But what happens when you have an area in medicine already ripe with doubt and skepticism, and add to that women who already seem to face both, including indifference, when seeking help for their medical issues? Something interesting to note, this phenomenon is not solely experienced in just the U.S.A. and neither is the “sexism” only among male doctors. Had I not had the experience I did with the female pain management doctor it would have been much more difficult for me to accept that this was true, and even so, it is still difficult for me. It’s easy to fall into that stereotypical thinking that “all women” are caring, understanding and empathetic creatures who just inherently “get” their female patients. But just like some women don’t like “chick flicks” or going to get mani-pedi’s there are plenty of female doctors who are not going to be in tune with female patients. However, let me point out doctors are not taught, on the whole, how to deal with patients with chronic pain. This is why all doctors of chronic pain/chronic illness patients tend to use the word “manage.” They manage us because they don’t know what else to do with us.
It is not fair to say that every woman has felt maligned by their treating doctor and neither does my opinion suggest that every doctor out there is unwilling to help chronic ill patients. However, a National Pain Report survey of 2,400 women did conclude that 90% of those women felt discriminated against because they are women. Also, a staggering 65% of the women felt that doctors (of either gender) took their pain less seriously.[ https://www.healthline.com/health-news/gender-bias-against-female-pain-patients#5%5D That was a survey done in 2015 and while I would like to think that maybe there’s been some progress, I feel there hasn’t been enough. I come into contact with many women in this community who feel so helpless about how they can try to move on in their lives and have some semblance of normalcy, only to hit a brick wall when trying to have a dialaogue with their doctor. If it sounds like I am angry about this, you are right. As many people as there are who are struggling with chronic pain.illness, and the majority of which are women, I think there should be more done to help. Hold seminars on chronic pain. Talk to chronic pain patients. Find out what they want most in their doctor and treatment plan. Don’t just sit there and think because you’ve gone to school for so many years that you know everything. That is my biggest wish right there. That doctos from all fields and specialities would try to expand their mind and come together to try and help a segment of society that is really hurting.