Miss Understood: Gender Bias in Healthcare

Miss Understood: Gender Bias in Healthcare

In my personal experience with pain, I found that being able to endure severe pain is somewhat expected from women. I once had a doctor tell me my pain couldn’t be as bad as the pain I felt while getting my tattoos. I was speechless and furious. How could he begin to compare the two?

Arlene Grau

Arlene Grau

Unfortunately many people, not only doctors, tend to throw out comparisons or disregard me when I explain how terrible my pain is. I feel as if I’m constantly having to justify myself and prove my pain to not only healthcare providers but everyone around me.

I don’t show my pain on the outside. I tend to put on a happy face and internalize the severity of it. The fact that time and time again doctors have doubted me also makes me more inclined to keep it to myself.

During one of my ER visits I had a doctor ask if I had any children. When I told him yes he said the pain I was there for couldn’t be as bad as giving birth. He was certain that I was exaggerating my symptoms, even though I made it clear that I didn’t want pain medication. I found that the ER nurses – all of whom were female — were a lot more sympathetic.

Some of the illnesses I suffer from target more women than men. I think men are perceived as being stronger than women, so doctors tend to believe them more when they complain about not being able to handle their pain. Pain doesn’t care if you’re young or old, black or white, man or woman. It attacks anyone and no two people suffer exactly the same.

I feel like some doctors are biased when treating patients and one of the major factors that contributes to their opinion is gender. Women are thought of as being more dramatic, sensitive and unable to cope.

Every time I try to describe the intensity of my pain to someone they almost always ask why I got so many tattoos if I’m always hurting. What they don’t know is that 90% of them were done before I got sick. Explaining that isn’t what frustrates me though, it’s the simple fact that they don’t believe me.

As if women in pain don’t already have enough obstacles to overcome, the skepticism of others hurts deeper than any superficial wound.

Arlene and girlscropped1Arlene Grau lives in Lakewood, California. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, migraine, vasculitis, and Sjogren’s disease.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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Have you read the book In the Kingdom of the Sick by Laurie Edwards? It validates EVERYTHING you’re saying and feeling. It’s not just you…there is social evidence and proof that women ARE treated differently than men when it comes to pain and chronic illness. I think this book will help you feel less frustrated, as it’s not just you experiencing this. Reading the book has helped me a lot!

Chey Cobb

I read your articles about pain, doctors, disability, etc. and cried. I cried because I have developed PTSD from having to continually defend myself against ignorant doctors for the past 10 years. Did you know that most doctors only receive about 2 days worth of lessons on pain in med school? When I discovered that fact, the lightbulb went on in my head. Obviously, when you add lack of training with the DEA war on drugs, it all makes sense. Doctors have been brainwashed to disregard pain because they believe that anyone who needs opiates will turn into a raving addict. They also have never heard of “pseudo-addiction” - Google it. It’s how doctors mistake our pleas for help as confirmation of addiction.

I am 61 and have similar medical problems to yours - and a lot more. I have not been able to work for 10 years, but the doctors always have a plausible explanation (to themselves) as to why I’m just being a hysterical old woman. I get sicker every year but all my doctors want to do is to play whack-a-mole for each symptom. They will never let me list all my symptoms and they latch on to ones they “know” they can treat.

What bothers me is that when you look at all my symptoms, they add up to possible tumors or cancer. The fact that I now have severe abdominal pain, night sweats, fatigue, and have lost 30 pounds in 3 months doesn’t matter to my main doctor. He just tells me to use Pepcid for acid reflux. I am not hopeful of finding a “good” doctor.

Everytime I have tried to find a new doctor, they look at my list of meds, they see “morphine”, and they immediately start telling me how they “don’t like” morphine and then spell out the restrictions they will place upon me in order to continue with that med. Then they don’t want to hear my list of symptoms. They tell me that ALL my symptoms can be attributed to my “use of morphine”. I have been on morphine for about 5 years, at about the same dose, but I am an “addict” to them and my complaints are not worth noting. I am not hopeful for my future.

I used to work as one of the top computer security experts in the US. I held a Top Secret security clearance and am highly respected in my field. None of that matters to doctors. I’m just a hysterical old woman.

Myron Shank, M.D., Ph.D.

Without in any way minimizing the problem of insensitivity to pain, I suggest that your experiences are not sufficient to demonstrate that men and women are treated differently. To point out the obvious, you have only had experience as a woman.

Sadly, men are expected to “man up” and “tough it out.”

The problems with chronic pain management are not biases against women or against men, but against those with chronic pain. Do not underestimate the impact of the “war on drugs” on physicians, even those who meticulously follow all of the laws, rules, guidelines, and recommendations, and faithfully incorporate the medical literature into their practices, scrupulously follow their patients, thoroughly document physical findings, symptoms, and functional status, obtain multiple consultations, and do all of the relevant diagnostic procedures. All of that is IRRELEVANT, when the witness against you knows nothing of any of these standards, etc., repeatedly admits that she has not even read “most” of the records about which she is testifying, and merely repeats whatever the prosecutor coaches her to say.

Chronic pain management will never improve until the politics of pain management changes.

Johnna Stahl

Your kids are adorable, Arlene, and no matter what you feel like inside, you look fabulous. 🙂

Johnna Stahl

The difference between chronic pain and labor (of course) is that labor only lasts a short time and does not return (until you have another).


Only a man would compare Labor & Delivery to chronic pain. I’ve had 6 children, the largest over 10 lbs, the smallest 9 lbs even. Not all women have hard, long labor deliveries.