Forum discusses medical misogyny, seeks support for change

May 8, 2023
Ged Kearney, chair of the newly-formed National Women’s Health Advisory Council, and Adele Welsh, Geelong Women Unionist Network co-convenor. Photo: Geelong Women Unionist Network/Facebook

A panel on “Patriarchy Power & Privilege: Medical Misogyny” discussed the gender bias in the health system. The forum on May 4 was the third of a series, hosted by the Geelong Women Unionist Network (GWUN) and the Geelong Regional Library.

After Wadawurrung Traditional Owner Nikki McKenzie gave a welcome to country, GWUN co-convener Adele Welsh spoke about First Nations women and girls’ experiences in a health system that frequently ignores culturally safe practices.

The panellists and more than 70 people shared stories about the inequitable health system which is likely contributing to unquantifiable, co-morbidities among women. There was a strong appetite to improve it.

Researcher Elizabeth McLindon spoke about her 2018 University of Melbourne study on gender-based violence, funded by the Australian and Nursing Midwifery Federation, (ANMF) Victorian Branch.

From surveying more than 10,600 women, 38% of the ANMF membership, on their experiences with family violence and sexual assault, she found that 45% had experienced one or more violent relationships since the age of 16.

The study also found that nurses and midwives experienced a higher rate of physical and sexual violence — up to 4.5 times higher.

McLindon reported on the trauma load healthcare workers carry, which leads to long-term health implications. They are more likely to have poor physical and mental health, caused by chronic sleep disturbance, financial stress and hazardous alcohol consumption, along with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rochelle Hamilton, a reproductive and sexual health nurse, who is undertaking a doctorate in public health, outlined the lack of contraceptive information services and information for women through their lives. “There’s a gamut of contraceptive methods out there, but women just don’t know about them and are not given the choice,” Hamilton said.

“Further, not all contraceptive pills are available on the [Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme] and costly hormone replacement therapy treatments also disadvantage many women during their peri- and post-menopausal years.

“Some GPs refuse to refer women for pregnancy terminations on the basis of conscientious objection … Women, under stressful and difficult circumstances, are forced to find a compassionate GP, without blame or moral judgment.” She said access can also be limited due to reduced bulk billing opportunities.

Ged Kearney, Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care and chair of the newly-formed National Women’s Health Advisory Council (NWHAC), questioned these systemic failures. She said the history of medicine was deeply rooted in systemic misogyny. Even last century, women were diagnosed with “hysteria”, a derivative of hystericus, Latin for “of the womb”.

Kearney listed the multiple barriers for women that lead to poor health outcomes: women are twice as likely to die from a heart attack while being misdiagnosed with anxiety and, at emergency departments, they are half as likely to receive pain relief because our symptoms are not believed. Endometriosis, for example, takes an average of seven years to diagnose.

Another study has found that women were twice as likely to reject hip prostheses, as earlier prototypes were modeled on men’s hip physiology.

There is a lack of research on auto-immune disease in women even though 78% of women are more likely to develop the conditions. Women are also more likely to accidentally overdose on medication, as most drug trials are undertaken on men.

The panellists expressed their concerns about how research is carried out. Despite being biologically different to women, mice are often substituted as research subjects. Little wonder then about the skewed outcomes.

People expressed hope that a new advisory council will deliver greater funding for research into women’s health.

Younger women and those with disabilities confirmed the male-dominated medical profession’s practice of dismissing pain symptoms — often with devastating consequences.

The ANMF was requested to run an educational campaign on medical misogyny. There was a strong appetite to expose the inequities and improve the flawed health system, which is likely contributing to unquantifiable, co-morbidities among women.

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