Bridging the health gap

How gender bias effects women in the Canadian medical system

Courtesy of Zhen Hu

Gender bias is the preference for one gender over the other. According to a 2020 global report by the United Nations, nearly 90 per cent of all people have some bias against women. 

For centuries, implicit and explicit gender bias has affected many industries and sectors, including health care. Unfortunately, gender bias in health care presents a dangerous threat to the well-being, safety and lives of women and must be acknowledged.

Sexism in health care can manifest in many ways including gaslighting concerned female patients, misdiagnosing them or dismissing them entirely and failing to include women in medical studies.

Women of colour, immigrants, nonbinary and trans folks face the most adversity when dealing with the Canadian healthcare system.

Where are the women in health research?

Deidre Young, a family doctor and the President of Canadian Women in Medicine, a non-profit organization based in Ottawa that supports and connects Canadian women physicians, says that excluding women from research studies is problematic and potentially dangerous. 

“At the most basic level of medicine, a lot of the studies, research and the ways that we describe symptoms have all been based on studies done by male researchers on male study participants,” says Young. “So sometimes women actually have different symptoms of common problems, but they get ignored.”

For example, many health issues such as heart attacks present different symptoms depending on biological sex differences. Therefore, basing medical knowledge on male-only studies can be extremely dangerous as this will cause physicians to overlook symptoms that present in females.

“There’s also a lot of embedded racism and sexism in medicine,” Young says. “If you happen to come from an underrepresented group of some kind, your risk of (health) complications goes up.” 

Fortunately, some women-centered health clinics and research facilities scattered across Ontario are working to bridge the health gap. Women’s College Hospital, located in Toronto, is one example of a revolutionary research facility dedicated to enriching women’s health and promoting health equity. 

The ‘mad’ woman

The lack of women’s representation in health data can also lead to an increase in misdiagnoses. 

Courtesy of Elia Pellegrini

Many women’s health symptoms are diagnosed as mental illnesses rather than physical ones. The ‘mad’ woman trope has long been perpetuated by the media, creating sexist social narratives that delegitimize women’s voices and continue to exist today. 

According to an article published by Medical News Today, “doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women than men, even when they have identical symptoms and depression symptom scores.” 

This is concerning because it means that not only are men’s mental health issues being ignored, but potentially serious physical health problems in women are being dismissed as afflictions of the mind.

One size treatment does not fit all

When it comes to health equity, as a doctor or physician, treating patients individually, listening to their stories and validating their experiences is key. 

“People don’t go to the doctor because they’re happy about things,” says Young.  “They go because they’re scared, and so it’s important to validate that and to find out what they are scared of.” 

However, getting to the root of the problem is often time-consuming and difficult, especially because health care workers in Ontario are short in supply. 

Unlike with a counsellor or therapist, switching family doctors for a more suitable match is not always an option. A good alternative is turning to a virtual care physician for non-emergency medical issues. One option is available through Tellus Health.

Keep communication open

As a patient, it’s important to speak up if you think your health issues are not being properly addressed.

“Women are more likely to be dismissed for medical problems, and they’re also less likely to speak up because they don’t want to rock the boat,” says Young. 

Asking for copies of medical notes and records can be a great way to mitigate discrepancies. Young also mentions that it may be useful to bring a friend or family member along to appointments as a witness. 

When it comes to more complex health situations, being honest with your healthcare provider while not expecting them to know all the answers and solutions right away is critical. Developing a healthy partnership with your physician will ultimately contribute to better health outcomes. 

“As long as you feel as though your health care worker has fully explored what’s going on and has made a genuine effort to get to the bottom of it, then you’re more likely to get the right answers and feel like you’re in it together.” 

Below is a list of women’s clinics in Ontario.


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