The study basically found that because they’re diagnosed so late, women are literally dying of sexism
Lately, we’ve been seeing more and more evidence that doctors don’t take women’s pain seriously, that they dismiss female health concerns, and that they don’t diagnose diseases in non-male patients as quickly. Now, a new large, official scientific study has confirmed that evidence again – finding that it can take up to four and a half years longer for a woman to get a diagnosis than for a man. And while researchers don’t know why that is exactly, they sure do have a few ideas.
The Danish study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications last month, analyzed hospital admissions from the entire Danish population (almost seven million people) for over two decades. They looked at the age at which men were diagnosed with hundreds of different diseases compared to the age at which women were diagnosed.
The study of 6.9 million people found that the same conditions were recognized in men when they were about four years younger than the age at which women were diagnosed. https://t.co/DL5Nge8RH2
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) March 26, 2019
“We’re not just looking at one disease here, we’re looking at all diseases and we are looking at an entire population, from cradle to grave,” lead author Søren Brunak from the University of Copenhagen told Reuters Health.
In every single instance, except for a few like osteoporosis (good job, we guess), men were diagnosed before women, in many cases years before women. For example, women were diagnosed with cancer an average of 2.5 years after men, while they were diagnosed with diabetes 4.5 years after men.
All in all, women were about four years older at the time of their health diagnosis as men with the same disease.
“(This) actually surprised us quite a lot,” Brunak said. “Men generally have a tendency to get to the doctor later… So presumably the difference in onset is even larger.”
Brunak stressed that the study only correlated the female sex with late diagnosis – it in no way looked for a reason that the diagnosis took place. However, there are some pretty good theories, many of which are tied to sexism.
Women with chronic illnesses: how long & how many doctors did it take you to get diagnosed? I counted 11 months & 17 doctors & wrote down what each did to show what we go through just to begin to heal. pic.twitter.com/2TJ7FOyH3B
— Suzannah Weiss (@suzannahweiss) October 16, 2018
First and foremost, women’s pain may be dismissed, while doctors (who are still primarily male) will listen more closely to the health concerns of men. Women may go to the doctor for multiple times, over a series of years, until a physician listens and runs the needed diagnostic tests to solve the problem.
Secondly, many major diseases are considered “men’s diseases,” such as heart disease, even though literally millions of women suffer from the condition. Doctors may be looking for, and testing for, these diseases in men, but not in women until lots of symptoms are present. That explains why women were diagnosed more quickly than men with osteoporosis, more of a “women’s disease,” but not with diabetes.
Across #diseases, women are #diagnosed later than men. A @NatureComms study on ~6.9million people shows that #women receive a disease diagnosis on average 4 years later than #men.#gender #sexdifferences https://t.co/B41DAPNkkK pic.twitter.com/bMdUsTvLoH
— Ensembl (@ensembl) March 16, 2019
Thirdly, doctors may be more familiar with how men present for diseases than how women present. To use the same example of heart disease, women’s symptoms of a heart attack can be more subtle, and significantly different, than men’s symptoms.
But note: there could be other factors as well, like the environment, genetics, or even how women are socialized to put others’ needs before their own. We know that minorities can be dismissed at the doctor’s office as well.
What does this study teach us? Most importantly, it confirms that women aren’t getting diagnosed as quickly as they could be, and that it clearly follows that some women are dying because of the diagnosis delay. It also suggests that doctors need to be trained to understand that this happens and how it can be stopped: by listening to women, realizing their unconscious biases, and getting women the health care they need, as soon as possible.