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Patients' pain is real, and so is medical bias

  • 28 November 2019
Whenever I go to a GP, I always request a female doctor. This isn't really about personal preference, but about bias. Ever since hitting my mid-teens, I've found I have slightly better odds with a female doctor actually engaging with my concerns.

But that's not to say that women are magically free from bias. As this video on Twitter shows, women in the medical profession are just as capable of dismissing patients' concerns. The video, in which an American health care worker plays a character who she calls out for 'faking' a cough, prompted disability advocate Imani Barbarin to coin the hashtag #PatientsAreNotFaking. People started tweeting in droves their own personal experiences of not being believed.

The original poster did follow up on her Twitter explaining the intent of the video was humorous. But intent doesn't negate impact and as Barbarin says, when 'people get killed because of that mentality', it's probably not something medical professionals should joke about.

This issue is not limited to the US. Medical systems around the world, including Australia, are just as complicit. The report 'Brave Men and Emotional Women', which reviewed 77 different articles in medical journals internationally, found that while men were often described as 'stoic' women were perceived as 'hysterical', 'emotional' and 'malingerers'.

That women are habitual complainers when it comes to pain is, in my experience, blatantly untrue. I have a vivid memory of sitting on a train and overhearing a woman tell her friend that she was fine, she was only experiencing her 'normal pain'. Her friend, thankfully, replied that there is no such thing as 'normal pain'. But that wasn't the first time I had heard something of that ilk, or said something like it myself.

Marginalised folk are told over and over again that their pain and lives, in general, don't matter. Women who experience chronic pain are often told by doctors that their pain is not real or is just psychosomatic, and are often instead prescribed antidepressants or referred to a mental health service. It's hard for queer and trans people to find a doctor who can provide them with 'culturally competent' care.

For marginalised people, diagnosis times take longer and can sometimes lead to poorer outcomes — for example, the estimated diagnosis period for endometriosis is seven to 12 years. Patients' pain not being taken seriously also leads to poorer outcomes during childbirth and postnatal care for black and Indigenous women and increased