Health Service Focus

13.01.20

How HCPs can tackle the gender health gap

Zaytun Ratansi, health facilitator at Living Well Taking Control, outlines ways that health care professionals (HCPs) to shorten the gender gap in healthcare.

Access to healthcare is not equal amongst the different groups within society. This is particularly true when we look at how different genders receive treatment. In 2019, a study of seven million patients over the course of 21 years found that women were diagnosed later than men across 700 diseases. Results revealed that on average, women received cancer diagnoses two and a half years after men and an average of four and a half years for metabolic diseases like diabetes.

It doesn’t stop at diagnosis. According to British Heart Foundation, women are also dying needlessly of heart attacks because men are receiving better treatment. Research found that women were 34% less likely to receive timely coronary angiography within 72 hours of their first symptoms compared to men – leading to 8,000 women dying in the last ten years. 

As healthcare practitioners, we should always strive to give fair and equal access to all. So how can we help to bridge the gap and tackle health inequalities we are seemingly currently fuelling?

Perception vs reality

The first step is understanding that the main issue lies within communication. The health gap is fed by perceptions that women are emotional and exaggerate the extent of their condition during assessment appointments. But the reality is, many women under-report symptoms, because they’re often busy and don’t want to make a fuss. If they’re not listened too or taken seriously when they do see a doctor, it can have significant implications on women’s health outcomes.

READ MORE BY THIS AUTHOR: Why face-to-face support is still crucial for prevention and treatment

The perceptions and biases need to be broken on both sides between patient and practitioner. Practitioners need to learn to read between the lines and women need to become more descriptive and open about their symptoms.

The training solution

To change the biases that result in misdiagnosis of women, practitioners need more training and awareness of how to interpret women’s symptom reporting.

Adopting active listening - where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated – is essential. Having a medical communications expert come into your practice to teach these skills in more detail can be extremely beneficial. This will go a long way in addressing the structural factors which influence women’s everyday thoughts and feelings when they communicate their symptoms.

Time to act

We must continue to encourage the equal treatment of all, listening to patients and calling out practices or views we see as unfair. Patients should be empowered to take control of their own health, free of barriers and with the ability to speak openly about their conditions. Only then will we be able to save thousands of patients previously misdiagnosed or ignored.

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