Not many people look forward to doctor’s appointments, but the experience can be especially difficult for women. Stories about women’s health concerns being minimized in the healthcare system aren't exactly new — time and time again, women's experiences being brushed off by medical professionals are shared, sometimes with fatal consequences. Intersectionality also plays a role, as women of color routinely report poor treatment by doctors, particularly when it comes to medical care for childbirth. Adding to the existing evidence, a new study focused on the Danish population found that women were diagnosed with diseases an average of 4 years later than men.
The comprehensive study, published in Nature Communications, assessed data from 6.9 million Danish people, dividing the population into two groups based on gender. The researchers observed patterns in the diagnosis of several medical conditions, as well as in patient care, based on the data. On average, women were diagnosed later than men for 770 different types of diseases and conditions, with an average delay of roughly four years. Women with cancer, for example, were generally diagnosed two and a half years later than men. Diagnosis of ADHD had a difference in diagnosis of almost six years, with women being diagnosed around age 20, compared to age 14 for boys. Women with diabetes were diagnosed around four and a half years later than men, delaying the course of their treatment significantly. Some exceptions did exist: osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones brittle and weak, was one case where women were typically diagnosed before men (80 percent of people with osteoporosis are women, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation).
“When we look across all diseases, we see a tendency that women on average are diagnosed later than men. We have looked not just at diseases, but also at the course of the patient care,” said study co-author Professor Søren Brunak in a statement. “The message is that the national strategies that are established need to take a difference into account. We can no longer use the 'one size fits all' model.”
While the study documents a disturbing trend regarding the treatment of women in the healthcare system, it also has limitations. It focuses solely on Danish citizens, who live in a country where healthcare is free and universal, subsidized by taxes. The pattern exhibited in the study could very well be different in a country like the U.S., where Reuters reports roughly 12 percent of American adults were without health insurance in 2017.
Research in this field has been a topic of interest for a while. One national survey of over 2,400 women found that 90 percent of women dealing with chronic pain felt the healthcare system had a gender bias, discriminating against female patients. And despite the fact that women report more severe and frequent pain levels, studies have found that they are treated for pain less aggressively. Another study found that in contrast to men who’d undergone the same operation, women who underwent coronary bypass surgery were half as likely to be prescribed painkillers. Even in emergency room settings, research showed that women waited, on average, 16 minutes more than men to get pain medication.
While the scientists behind the most recent were unsure of the exact cause of these differences, they could be attributed to a mixture of environmental, cultural, and genetic factors, as well as bias in the traditional diagnostic criteria of these conditions. Further research is needed, but the results illustrate a need for a better understanding of women’s health by medical professionals.
"It has been surprising to see that there is such a big difference between the diseases that affect men and women and between their patient care courses in a society where otherwise, we have equal and uniform access to the healthcare system,” said study author David Westergaard in a statement. “Now we are trying to map out what really lies behind the differences we see.”