Gender Health Gap Introduction
Welcome to this post about the Gender Health Gap. This is an issue which is currently receiving much-needed attention. So we’re going to explore it in this post. Specifically, we look at:
- What is a gender health gap?
- Does the UK have a gender health gap?
- Why does this gap exist?
- What are some real examples?
- Is change happening?
What is a Gender Health Gap?
Put simply, the gender health gap is when one gender experiences poorer health outcomes. These outcomes can relate to a variety of factors. Some examples are: disease prevalence (i.e. how likely one gender is to develop it), healthcare access, correct diagnosis, effective treatment, long term prognosis etc.
Often a gap will exist for several of these factors, so this creates a big difference between the health of males and females. It is similar to the gender pay gap, where salaries and earning potential differ based on gender.
Does the UK have a Gender Health Gap?
Many countries have a gender health gap, some bigger than others. In some countries men are disproportionately affected, in others it’s women.
Male v Female
In the UK, we have the largest female health gap in the G20 (world’s 20 biggest economies) and the 12th largest globally.
This is due to a number of factors including misdiagnosis of women’s symptoms. Women in the UK make fewer visits to the GP, receive less health monitoring, and take more potentially harmful medication. Suicide is the biggest killer amongst men under 40 years old and so remains an important male mental health issue. Mental health problems have stabilised amongst men, however; their prevalence is increasing amongst women.
Looking at intersectionality (where identities overlap) shows that the not all women have the same experience. This is because factors such as race also play a part. For example, black women have the highest rate of death in childbirth compared with Asian and white women, whereas white women have the lowest rate. Health outcomes are also poorer for LGBT and disabled people. See our post on health impacts of loneliness for disabled people.
Why Does This Gap Exist?
Award winning author Caroline Criado Perez argues that this gap has existed since medicine was invented in Ancient Greece. The female anatomy was then perceived as a mutilated version of the male anatomy. Hysteria (considered a female condition) resulted from lack of impregnation and women were seen as lesser beings. You can read more in her book Invisible women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.
Surely this patriarchal world view has changed in modern times? Despite medicine now viewing female anatomy as different rather than mutilated, women remain marginalised. In medical school, students are taught to recognise signs and symptoms for diseases as they appear in men. As a result, many women experience misdiagnosis because they have different symptoms. For example, one study found that women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after heart attack.
Moving from diagnosis to treatment. Women are more likely to receive the wrong type of medication or an inappropriate dose. The majority of clinical studies are carried out on men, because it’s easier to account for the potential influence of monthly hormonal fluctuations where there aren’t any. This means that resulting treatment is tailored to men not women. When it comes to dosage, women are often treated as ‘smaller men’ and might be given a slightly smaller dose. Women’s physiology is different to men’s and so a different drug altogether might actually be more therapeutic.
What are some real examples?
Trigger warning: the examples below include independent public enquiries where women were harmed by medical professionals.
A debate on the gender health gap took place in the UK House of Lords last year. Three independent reports and inquiries highlighted situations where mostly women have suffered harm because of poor healthcare.
The Paterson Inquiry report investigated surgeon Ian Paterson. In 2017, he was convicted of wounding with intent and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He subjected more than 1,000 patients (mostly women who’d found a lump in their breast) to unnecessary and damaging operations over 14 years.
First Do No Harm Report (a.k.a. Cumberlege report) is investigated the safety of medicines and medical devices. It focused on three medical interventions. An epilepsy medication (sodium valproate) and a hormone pregnancy test (Primodos), both were found to cause harm to unborn children when used during pregnancy. The third, Pelvic mesh is used to treat pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence. The report highlighted the unnecessary suffering of women and multiple, systemic failings in healthcare.
The Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care Report details maternal mortality rates. Between 2016 and 2018, 217 women died during or up to six weeks after childbirth from causes associated with their pregnancy. There were disparities based on race: among every 100,000 women giving birth 34 Black women, 15 Asian women and 8 white women died. The report found that women with complex and multiple problems were prevented from receiving the care they need.
Is change happening?
In March 2021, a Call for Evidence sought views on the first government-led Women’s Health Strategy for England. Almost 100,000 responses were received detailing women’s experiences. This resulted in a report outlining the UK government’s vision for a women’s health strategy. The Women’s Health Strategy report outlines a desire to offer equal access to effective care and support, prioritising care on the basis of clinical need and not of gender. It highlights that it will take time to undo “decades of bias”.
Alongside the report’s publication, an announcement was made detailing a Bill which would cut the cost of repeat HRT (hormone replacement therapy) prescriptions. These are typically used by menopausal women. The HRT Bill was introduced to the House of Commons in June 2021 but has not yet been enacted. Conversely, there is a serious shortage of every brand of HRT in the UK. This has had a massive impact upon the physical and mental health of thousands of women.
Whether the report and political will actually leads to meaningful change for the health care outcomes of British women remains to be seen. What are your views or experiences on the Gender Health Gap? Do you think health outcomes for women in Britain will change in the next decade? Let us know in the comments below.