When it comes to their health, many women believe that they aren't taken as seriously as men. Studies prove that unintentional gender bias does exist: When women report the same symptoms as men, they receive different treatments, leading to less desirable outcomes. How can this change? Here are some ways that women can advocate for themselves.
Summit Health's Family Medicine doctor Dana Schonberg, MD completed a fellowship in Family Planning at Montefiore/Albert Einstein College of Medicine and has spent the majority of her career providing women's health care (prenatal care, family planning, miscarriage management) and conducting research in women's health care. She says the first step in advocating for yourself is to be assertive. “You want to clearly articulate your appointment goals, detail any symptoms, address any concerns, and ask any and all questions you may have,” she says. “To do that, come armed with a list.”
Westmed Medical Group's Obstetrics and Gynecology physician Theresa Linsner, MD also suggests you bring your written-out family history and list of medications and/or surgeries so you don't have to recall them from memory on the spot.
She also recommends that you try to think about some of the visit goals you have ahead of time. Goals may range from simply establishing new care to discussing appropriate screenings or talking about increased anxiety. Even if the doctor does not specifically ask you about these topics, if something is on your list, you should bring it up. “Being an active participant during the visit is so important,” says Dr. Linsner. “I find it most helpful when patients say things like, 'I want to make sure my mammogram is up to date.' Then, the onus is on me to respond to that.”
Speak Up and Have Those Difficult Conversations
Women often feel intimidated during an appointment. “Make sure you're comfortable with all that happens in the office during an appointment,” says Dr. Schonberg. This includes things like when, how, and with whom a pelvic exam is performed. Another topic that women find difficult to discuss is sex life, but sex is important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for many people, and it is an area that has a positive impact upon well-being. “It is hugely beneficial to a patient when such a conversation can be comfortably had,” says Linsner. “Remember, doctors are human, too.”
In addition to the taboo topic of sex, as women get older, they may face other issues that are difficult to bring up. But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed! Doctors should be focused on ensuring you feel great at all ages. Your provider or the staff may ask you questions about your emotional well-being, physical activity, falls risk, bladder health, vision, and hearing – key questions for disease and injury prevention. You should feel comfortable bringing any of these issues up, even if you are not asked about them. Your provider is there to support you.
Additionally, if you have any concerns about the affordability of your medications or treatments, please ask your provider for help. In addition to doctors, pharmacists and social workers may be able to set you up with cost-effective ways to get your medication or even connect you with community resources.
Dr. Schonberg says, “If you leave an office feeling unheard, disrespected, rushed, or confused, that is a sign that you may not be getting the best treatment. If you are at all uncomfortable, it is important to voice your concerns to the doctor or office staff.”
Find the Right Match
Dr. Linsner adds that it's also perfectly okay to meet multiple physicians until you find the right relationship that works for you. Women often hesitate or pause to consider how their provider might feel if they make a switch, but they must put their health goals first, and a health care provider who truly cares about the patient, will not take it personally. Switching may be the healthiest move to make. “If it wasn't the best fit, have that conversation with someone else,” she advises. “It's like dating. We all have different personalities. Certain dynamics are better with different providers. But everyone wins when their needs are heard.”
Changing doctors can be a challenging process, but with Summit Health and Westmed Medical Group, you don't have to wait for the transference of medical records to see someone else. You can simply go to another physician within the group, and we can access the central system, picking up where the other provider left off.
Ensure Coordination of Care
Communication between different doctors and specialist is an important way to get the most effective care. Your primary care physician should be talking to any specialists you see to ensure everyone is on the same page. This can improve safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of care and is a hallmark of both Summit Health and Westmed Medical Group.
During your visit, it's perfectly fine, and even encouraged, to take notes in order to recall the specifics later. Also, don't be afraid to ask for a summary of treatment if one isn't handed or sent to you, Dr. Linsner says.
“Tell the doctor if there is something that is making you anxious, including anticipated pain or discomfort during a pelvic exam or gynecologic procedure or confusion about a diagnosis or treatment plan,” Dr. Schonberg adds.
To that end, feel free to ask for resources where you can learn more about your diagnoses and treatments so that you don't have to use search engines that may lead you astray. Also get second opinions, especially when it's a difficult diagnosis. Physicians actually expect you to confirm it by seeing someone else.
Participate in Trials
Women with chronic health conditions should always inquire about participating in clinical trials for new medications and methods of treatment. Summit Health's Clinical Research Manager Michelle Mackenzie RN, OCN, CCRC notes, “Clinical trials are important for women because disease often presents differently in women, and women respond differently to treatments. As clinical trials historically have not adequately enrolled women, the true understanding of women's response to medications is hindered. Can a drug truly be deemed therapeutic if it leaves out more than half the population in the world during trials?” she asks.
Including women “may contribute to the differences in clinical outcomes, under-reported side effects, and incorrect dosages,” she says.
Currently, Summit Health has several trials about metastatic and invasive breast cancer (and other disorders) underway. For more about Summit Health's approach to clinical trials, click here.
Be Your Own Health Care Hero
Knowing how to advocate for your health is critical, but it is especially important for women. So listen to your body, find doctors who are right for you, take notes, speak up, work to fully understand your treatment plans, and get those second opinions.