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Female Burden in Healthcare: My Personal Story on Misogyny in Medicine

Invisible they may be, misogyny still thrives in medicine, and often affecting both female patients and doctors.

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  • July 5, 2024
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Female Burden in Healthcare: My Personal Story on Misogyny in Medicine

In the world of medicine, where healing and hope should thrive, a hidden struggle exists—misogyny. This quiet battle affects countless women, both patients and professionals. As a female doctor, I’ve felt its weight deeply. My story is not just personal; it highlights the discrimination that affects our healthcare system. If I, a doctor, face this, imagine how much worse it is for patients. This story needs to be told, not just for our collective awareness, but also to push for change.

As a female healthcare professional, I have experienced misogyny in medicine firsthand. Let me start by sharing my personal journey.

 

 

When I graduated from medical school in 2010, I was hired as a doctor in West Papua, a province two days trip from my hometown. The reaction from friends and family was uniform: “Why work so far away from your parents?” Apparently despite my MD (medical doctor) title, their main concern was my ability to take care of my parents. My worth seemed tied to traditional roles and family duties. Several years later, I thought the concerns shifted to my career choices: “Are you not interested in taking any specialties?”, but again I have to be disappointed as their next statement was “You should apply for pediatrics or dermatology; they’re better suited for women.”

Also Read: Achieving Healthcare Rights For Trans and Nonbinary People Is A Must

When I planned to get married, my spouse and I had intense discussions about who would take residency first and how we’d handle having children. Ultimately, he took residency first due to age limits, while I deferred due to the age limit on pregnancy. These experiences happened without me realizing that this was misogyny, this was discrimination. And if it can happen to me, imagine how much worse it can be for patients who are often placed secondary to healthcare professionals.

Despite hating being treated this way, I unconsciously imposed similar biases on my female patients. The irony of my actions was not lost on me, yet it took a long time for me to fully grasp the depth of this contradiction. During my 10 years of practice, without realizing it, I myself had practiced medicine based on gender bias:

  • I invalidated teenagers with menstrual cramps, thinking it was just an excuse to skip class.
  • I advised female patients with chronic gastritis to reduce stress, but not male patients with the same condition.
  • I scolded female patients who attempted suicide, telling them to be stronger and not be a burden.
  • I even scolded a laboring patient for screaming too loudly, worried about disturbing others.

These biases and experiences are not unique to me. As I became more aware, I started to observe that many healthcare professionals experience and perpetuate the same issues, leading to the invalidation of female patients. This dismissal of women’s symptoms leaves serious health conditions undiagnosed and untreated, affecting individual patients and placing a greater burden on healthcare systems and society as a whole.

I have heard countless stories from female patients about being mistreated by healthcare professionals. Each story is a testament to the pervasive and systemic nature of gender bias within the healthcare system. These stories are not isolated incidents but rather a pattern of behavior that highlights a critical flaw in our healthcare system. This bias and invalidation lead to:

  • Trauma and reluctance to seek professional help.
  • Resorting to unscientific treatments or fake drugs.
  • Delayed diagnoses, higher treatment costs, and worse outcomes.

The impact of such mistreatment goes beyond physical health; it erodes trust in healthcare providers and institutions, leading to a reluctance to seek medical help when it is needed. This lack of trust can have devastating consequences, as women may delay or avoid seeking care, resulting in worsened health outcomes and preventable complications. Moreover, these experiences contribute to a broader narrative of gender inequality that permeates many aspects of women’s lives. They are a stark reminder of how deeply entrenched biases can influence the quality of care provided to patients based on their gender.

Also Read: We Need to Talk about the Stigma Against People with HIV/AIDS in Indonesia>

Earlier this year, during my book writing process, I conducted an online survey about access to contraception. Out of 260 respondents, 4-5% stated that their request for contraception had been rejected due to age, marital status, number of children, or needing a husband’s approval. If there are 150 million females in Indonesia, this 4% translates to 6 million people affected. This alarming statistic underscores the widespread nature of healthcare inequities and the urgent need for reform.

You can imagine how many women have to fall into poverty, work multiple jobs, or face serious health conditions. Some may even end up in abusive relationships because of children they can’t afford. Many children are neglected, stunted, malnourished, and suffer minimal brain development, which will become a burden on the country as they struggle to become productive adults. All of this could be prevented with access to contraception which is free in Indonesia or safe abortion services, which are not fully available in Indonesia.

From a healthcare professional’s perspective, 2/3 of general practitioners are female. However, among specialists, only 2/5 of them are female . Females take specialists primarily in pediatrics, dermatology, plastic surgery, rehabilitation, and nutrition—fields stereotypically seen as “care work” or “delicate work” better suited for women. Meanwhile, “masculine” specialties like orthopedics, general surgery, and neurosurgery are overwhelmingly male-dominated, often 90 to 100 percent male in each cohort. Additionally, while 60-70 percent of nurses are female, the majority of those in strategic roles with authority are male. All midwives in Indonesia are female, supported by law (Law no. 4, 2019 about Midwifery).

This misogyny is rooted in a long history of patriarchy, male dominance, and colonization. These systemic issues profoundly impact cultural norms and stereotypes within health institutions, ultimately affecting women’s health rights, especially in sexual and reproductive health. This includes access to menstrual hygiene, bans on child marriage and female genital mutilation, health services for sexual violence victims, non-discriminative access to contraception, and safe abortion services.

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Misogynistic attitudes contribute to restrictive abortion laws, biased healthcare providers, inadequate facilities for safe abortion services, discriminatory health financing, biased research and technology development for abortion methods, and the dissemination of false information about safe abortion. They significantly impact the accessibility and quality of abortion services, as well as many other reproductive healthcare services that women desperately need.

Misogyny comes in many forms, impacting women’s lives across all stages and situations, regardless of socio-economic status, education, marital status, ethnicity, or religion. Addressing misogyny in medicine is fundamental. Ensuring that women receive equitable and respectful care is essential for their physical and mental health, as well as for the overall effectiveness of healthcare delivery. We must continue advocating for gender equality in healthcare, better policies, and education to break down these barriers.

dr. Sandra Suryadana is a medical doctor and Founder of Komunitas Dokter Tanpa Stigma


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