By Consumers For Quality Care, on September 16, 2019
While consumers often seek medical care for the same reason – to improve their health and quality of life – their experiences can differ. Voice of America examines the role empathy plays in care and how women and minorities can be adversely affected.
A 2007 study from the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga found that physicians often underestimate the pain of patients who they do not closely identify with. While the medical field is still largely comprised of white men, this can mean that the pain of people of color, women and the elderly is overlooked.
Strikingly, the study found that physicians were twice as likely to underestimate pain in black patients compared to all other ethnicities combined.
Similarly, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has said that black women have strokes at twice the rate of white women. When they do, they are also much less likely to survive. Patient advocates suggest that the lack of empathy from doctors can lead to worse health outcomes for patients; symptoms may be ignored or downplayed if physicians underestimate the discomfort they are causing.
Maya Dusenbery, a medical journalist who examines how sexism in medicine can be harmful to women’s health, believes female patients are sometimes taken less seriously than their male counterparts.
Looking at studies comparing treatment of men to treatment of women, Dusenbery said, “I didn’t understand why so many women were being treated as hypochondriacs when I didn’t know any women who were hypochondriacs.”
The consumers that have experienced not being listened to by their doctors know this to be true. When Joyce Sasser was born with no bones in her thumbs, the doctors blamed a drug called thalidomide for the abnormalities. Her mother swore she had not used the medication, which was used to treat morning sickness at the time. Still, the physicians continued to use it to explain Sasser’s congenital abnormalities.
It wasn’t until Sasser was pregnant with her own daughter, in 1990, that her physicians figured out the true culprit. Sasser was diagnosed with a congenital issue called Diamond-Blackfan anemia, which causes the body to fail to make enough red blood cells. Since her diagnosis, she has learned how to manage the health issues that come with her condition.
She also says that she has learned how to be a better advocate for herself and speak up about her treatments.
Sasser says: “Be your own advocate.” Having survived several types of cancer and other medical conditions related to her Diamond-Blackfan anemia, Sasser has a notebook in which she compiles all information related to her treatment, so she can save time during appointments by showing doctors the appropriate records.
Dusenbery, like Sasser, says that women need to advocate for themselves. She suggests taking along a friend or relative as a support system, asking questions, or even taking notes can be helpful for patients. She emphasizes that consumers should stand up for themselves and not resign to a lesser treatment or care.
At the end of the day, however, Dusenbery thinks that the health care system can improve to better support the needs of women and minority consumers.
“So much of what we’re doing is asking individual women to compensate for the failings of the system,” she said. “We shouldn’t rely on that individual self-advocacy. The system should be better for everybody.”