Woman’s body, man’s medicine
published by Diari ARA, Spain
Our starting point is an androcentric medicine that has investigated manifestations in men and extrapolated the results to women.
It was thought that reproductive health was the only differentiating characteristic, but the symptoms, treatments and recovery for the same disease might not be the same.The biological differences, which are often invisibilised, explain only part of the health inequalities, which are also conditioned by gender roles.
The following are some of the specific characteristics of women’s health
- Mental health
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory diseases
- Reproductive system and sexuality
- Autoimmune diseases
- Research and drugs
1. Mental health: From mixed bag to overmedication
More cases of depression and anxiety
Worse living and working conditions for women, double working days (particularly for less qualified workers), domestic and care work, guilt and perfectionism can all have an impact on women’s health. Women are more likely to experience mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which affect almost twice as many women (13.7%) as men (7.4%). Moreover, one in three women says they feel emotional distress, while in men this figure is one in five.
“It’s a mixed bag. Anything that happens to a woman is attributed to her being anxious or overstressed, without taking into account her working or care conditions. A pill isn’t the solution. We have to change living and working conditions.”
Carme Valls, Endocrinologist and author of Mujeres Invisibles Para La Medicina
Women are more likely to be sent away with a diagnosis of mental illness at an initial visit than men; in the latter, an organic cause is immediately suspected and additional tests are requested. This gender bias leads to overmedication in women: 85% of psychotropic medications are administered to women. This overdiagnosis can also render invisible physical diseases that are hidden behind an incorrect diagnosis of mental illness or psychosomatic symptoms because they might not fit the “normal pattern,” i.e. the male model.
The taboo of motherhood
Another area ignored by science is mental health and motherhood. One in four women experience some kind of mental health problem, some more severe than others, during pregnancy or in the postpartum period, and most of them are not treated. This is not helped by the fact that the postpartum and nurturing period is a lonely time for many women. Traumatic childbirth, a difficult pregnancy, childhood trauma or stressful situations can trigger postpartum depression and the most common symptoms are sadness, hopelessness, emotional changes, insomnia or difficulty bonding with the infant.
2. Cardiovascular disease: Heart attacks are mistaken for anxiety
Leading cause of death
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women in Spain, ahead of breast cancer. While men experience more heart attacks and women more strokes and heart failure, women are twice as likely to die in the event of a heart attack. The mortality rate of myocardial infarction is 9% in men and 18% in women. There are various reasons for this. It takes women longer to go to the hospital and their symptoms are often mistaken for anxiety.
“Cardiovascular diseases are very well differentiated in men, but in women, the diagnosis is much less specific and less cautious than in men. Fewer tests are carried out, assuming ‘the chest pain must be anxiety’. No. At the very least an electrocardiogram, imaging study or stress test must be performed to rule out an organic cause.”
Antonia Sambola, Cardiologist at Vall D’Hebron Hospital and expert in women’s cardiovascular health
Women seek care later, downplaying their symptoms or putting the care of others before their own, and this leads to delayed diagnosis. The symptoms are also confusing at times. Chest pain is a symptom in 90% of women, but they also have other additional symptoms, which are more intense than in men, including nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headache. “They also have chest pain and shortness of breath, like men, but by the time women go to the doctor the chest pain has already passed because they are already in heart failure,” adds Sambola.
Practitioners are calling for more emphasis on cardiovascular disease prevention as there are risk factors in women that are largely left unaddressed and that are closely related to pregnancy and childbirth, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and premature birth. “Menopause also increases cardiovascular risk. Has that been explained? There isn’t enough information. We’re completely lost,” acknowledges Elisa Llurba, Head of the Gynaecology Department at Sant Pau Hospital. Practitioners also call for campaigns to promote self-care.
3. Breasts: Between aesthetics and pathology
Breasts have been used to sell everything from cars to perfumes, but we have rarely studied what they look like on the inside. The breast has not been studied from an anatomical or physiological perspective. “It has become trivialised as something which is aesthetic rather than functional, and we have gone from not knowing anything about breasts to knowing only their pathology, breast cancer,” says surgeon Maria Jesús Pla. Furthermore, the depiction of a perfect breast has failed to take into account the fact that they come in all shapes and sizes. “The mammary gland is neither seen nor explained. We don’t know how it works, but they do teach us how the liver and kidneys work. Most women don’t know what the raised bumps on the areola of the nipple are called,” adds breastfeeding expert Alba Padró.
Over 90% of women who give birth breastfeed their children in the first few days, a percentage that decreases as time passes. There are multiple reasons for this, ranging from insufficient leave from work to a lack of breastfeeding support.
“Healthcare professionals do not receive specific training on breastfeeding and the training they do receive is not enough. Much emphasis has been placed on the benefits, a chapter that has since been closed, but not on the solution to the problems. You would expect paediatricians to be trained in breastfeeding but they’re not, and this is the first reality check: breasts are essentially no one’s territory.”
Alba Padró, Cofounder of LactApp and IBCLC breastfeeding expert
Approximately one in every eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. It is the most common tumour in women worldwide and in Catalonia, it accounts for about 30% of the tumours affecting women. Most cases are diagnosed between the ages of 35 and 80, with the highest number of cases between the ages of 45 and 65. The disease also has an emotional impact that other cancers might not have, as it is a more visible organ and has sexual and aesthetic implications. The challenge for these patients is to return to their work and sexual life.
“Surgeons must be sensitive to the aesthetics of the breast because tumours here have special implications. Conservative surgery rates are very high, at over 75%, and when this isn’t possible, immediate reconstruction is performed. You shouldn’t end up with a line. But it’s also important to remember that a woman is more than just two breasts.”
Maria Jesús Pla, Breast surgeon at Bellvitge Hospital
Survival rates have increased with the improvement in treatments, as this is a tumour that is subject to a lot of research and early detection through population screening. In Catalonia, mammograms are recommended between the ages of 50 and 69 every two years, not annually. Routine mammograms are not recommended in women under the age of 50 with no risk factors. The effectiveness of screening in women between the ages of 40 and 49 is a controversial debate. “The disease is less prevalent and mammograms are less effective. If population screening were to be extended, it has been said that it would be better to do so amongst women between the ages of 70 and 75,” explains Maria Jesús Pla.
4. Respiratory Disease: Conditions on the rise among women
Respiratory diseases that were considered to be predominantly male conditions have risen among women due to the increase in smoking. This is the case for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which, according to a study by the Hospital del Mar, shows more symptoms in women: increased breathlessness, increased muscle involvement and more lesions than in men with equally severe disease. COPD is a disease that is underdiagnosed in women. According to Carme Valls, there is a tendency to diagnose women with asthma when in actual fact it is COPD. Practitioners believe it progresses differently not only because of the biological characteristics of sex but also because of the sociocultural characteristics of gender. Women with this disease have a worse quality of life.
Lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death, is also on the rise among women due to the increase in smoking. It has gone from being the fourth most common tumour among women in 2015 to the third, and it is expected to continue increasing in the coming years, overtaking breast cancer. Meanwhile, it is expected to become less common among men due to the decline in smoking.
“Lung cancer used to be considered a male disease and this has likely led women to be less cautious with smoking. Perhaps there should be gender-specific public health campaigns aimed at women and young girls.”
Enriqueta Felip, Head of the thoracic, head and neck cancer unit within the oncology department at Vall D’Hebron Hospital
There are people, mostly women, who have already had an acute coronavirus infection but continue to have symptoms six months later. These are generally young women, between the ages of 35 and 50, who have a wide range of fluctuating symptoms including headaches, extreme fatigue, tachycardia, muscle and joint pain, breathing difficulty and memory loss. This even occurs after having had a mild form of COVID. The symptoms are similar to those of chronic fatigue, a condition with which they also share preconceptions and a lack of understanding. Long COVID is thought to affect between 10% and 20% of patients. There has been a lack of information on this condition for months, which has led to underdetection and those affected have at times felt questioned by the healthcare system.
5. Reproductive system and sexuality: Invisbilised diseases and the medicalisation of physiological processes
There are diseases that only affect women, such as endometriosis, for which there is a lack of investment and research because, as scientist Maria Montoya from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) ironically puts it, “they only affect 50% of the population.” Endometriosis is the gynaecological disease with the highest incidence: it affects at least 10% of women of reproductive age, but this figure could be higher as the condition is underdiagnosed. It is a chronic disease, and its best-known symptoms are pain during menstruation, pelvic pain and infertility. However, the pain has become socially normalised among women to the point that a diagnosis can take up to eight years.
The healthcare system has medicalised normal physiological processes in women, such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause, by imposing a paternalistic approach: seven out of ten women say they have felt belittled during pregnancy or childbirth. However, women are becoming increasingly informed and empowered and are pushing for a change in the care model, demanding more humanised and less medicalised care. “Depending on how we deal with childbirth, we can leave a young, healthy woman with a chronic condition, and the healthcare system and practitioners must be held accountable for this,” says Maria Llavoré, a midwife at Sant Pau Hospital.
“We are being self-critical. There is an element of unconscious structural violence, and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we can fix it. There’s no point in becoming bogged down in whether or not to call it obstetric violence. We can and must do better.”
Elena Carreras, Head of obstetrics at Vall D’Hebron Hospital
The caesarean section rate in Catalonia (27.4%) is still double the WHO’s recommended rate (15%) and is, together with inductions, an indicator of obstetric quality. Episiotomies, the Kristeller manoeuvre and overmedication are just some of the practices that have been criticised. But infantilising a woman or disregarding her consent is also considered to be obstetric violence. This respect applies not only to childbirth but also to miscarriages, abortions and infertility or assisted reproduction procedures. The Ministry of Equality, like the Catalan law on gender-based violence before it, plans to include obstetric violence as a form of violence against women in the reform of the abortion law. The Catalan Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the four Catalan medical associations have recently acknowledged that obstetric violence exists and are calling for a debate, even though they have admitted that the term makes them uncomfortable.
Female sexuality has been invisibilised or is full of taboos and stereotypes, and pleasure and the female body have long been an unknown reality, even to women themselves. We have not received sex education, and the education we have received has perpetuated sexist models. However, more and more women are reclaiming their pleasure while making sexual and gender diversity visible beyond binarism. Beyond this, consultations related to sexuality are increasing because issues such as pain during sex and anorgasmia are no longer normalised.
“The level of ignorance about women’s bodies is appalling, even among some practitioners. The clitoris hasn’t been studied, it’s unknown, it’s not drawn and it doesn’t appear in photos. If we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. If women don’t know where it is, they don’t know where to stimulate it.”
Maria Llavoré, Midwife at Sant Pau Hospital
Almost half of women (46%) have one or more pelvic floor disorders, such as urinary or bowel incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse. This has a major impact on their quality of life. Pregnancy and childbirth are key factors, but there are also other causes such as high-impact sport, constipation, ageing and menopause. Until recently, it was considered that, since no one died, it was simply accepted, but practitioners are calling for check-ups and treatment of the pelvic floor to be routine practice in the healthcare system and for there to be a prevention strategy: the pelvic floor should be discussed from an early age, and training should be provided in schools. Teaching how to do Kegel exercises should be like teaching them how to brush their teeth.
These cancers begin in the female reproductive system. They can affect the cervix (the neck of the uterus), ovaries, uterus, vagina and vulva. The risk increases with age and some gynaecological cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Girls and women between the ages of 9 and 26 can be vaccinated against HPV, and vaccination is recommended before becoming sexually active. If the vaccine were less expensive, practitioners believe that it would also be advisable to administer it to boys.
6. Joints: Women’s pain: an unresolved issue
One in three women reports having pain or discomfort, while in men this figure is one in five. Women are more likely to experience chronic pain as most diseases that cause muscle or joint pain are more common in women. “Chronic pain is one of medicine’s unresolved issues,” says endocrinologist Carme Valls. Experts are calling for it to be addressed as a public health problem.
“It is important for healthcare professionals to consider not only the disease but also what comes before it: the living conditions that may have led to these disorders. Including the gender perspective is an improvement in care. You can’t take care of people’s health without taking into account their living conditions, which are very different for men and women.”
Lucía Artazcoz, Director of the Public Health Observatory of the Barcelona Public Health Agency
Physical and mental overload
Rheumatic and musculoskeletal diseases such as arthritis, osteoarthritis, back pain, osteoporosis and fibromyalgia are common causes for consultation in primary care. It is estimated that these conditions take up around 30% of primary care physicians’ time. Valls states in her text that the pain of many women is often silenced or rendered invisible with psychotropic medications and that studies do not take into account the physical and mental overload experienced by women in their lives and workplaces.
Fibromyalgia is characterised by chronic pain throughout the body, particularly in the muscles and joints of the back and limbs, and hypersensitivity to pain, noise, smells and light. It can also be accompanied by cognitive and sleep disorders, gastrointestinal disorders and fatigue. It is a disease that occurs more frequently among women (4.2% of women and 0.2% of men in Spain), its origin is unknown and, in many cases, it is debilitating. Those affected can spend years going from one consultation to the next until eventually reaching the diagnosis of a highly stigmatised disease.
“The prevalence among women is huge. There are no doubt hormonal and pain perception factors involved, but we’re not really sure about this. What we do know is that the pain exists and that they’re not making it up. There are some very hard-hitting cases. What is the cause? That is up for debate, but the pain is real.”
Josep Blanch, Head of the Rheumatology Department at Hospital Del Mar
It is not without controversy. Carme Valls wrote in her text that “all kinds of muscle pain for which no explanation could be found have been attributed to this disease, with no objective evidence.” She questions the fact that it is treated with psychotropic medications and believes that more research studies are needed for women diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
7. Autoimmune Diseases: Complex diseases that affect women the most
Attacked by our own defences
Autoimmune diseases are those in which the immune system attacks the body’s own organs. It is estimated that one in ten people in Catalonia has an autoimmune disease. Some only attack specific organs, such as autoimmune thyroiditis, the most common form, which affects the thyroid gland, while other systemic forms involve a generalised attack. Sjögren’s syndrome is the most prevalent of these, but lupus is the most paradigmatic.
More women affected
Two-thirds of those affected are women and in some specific conditions this proportion is even larger: for every man with lupus there are nine women, and for every man with Sjögren’s syndrome there are six women. There are multiple reasons for this, but female sex hormones are a major factor, and “periods in which they are more active, from puberty until menopause” is when the most disease onsets and the most flare-ups occur.
“In the case of lupus, treating the kidney or nervous system is just as important as treating reproductive issues or skin lesions on the face, something that perhaps would not be as important for a man.”
Ricard Cervera, Head of Autoimmune Diseases at Clinic Hospital
It also affects women of childbearing age, which has special implications. Forty years ago it was said that women with lupus would not be able to have children as they would miscarry and the disease would flare-up. Nowadays, they have similar fertility to the general population and pregnancies are more closely monitored.
The other bias
In this case, it is men who may experience a delay in diagnosis because, in theory, doctors find it hard to believe that a man might have lupus, for example. But when they do have it, it is more severe.
8. Research and Drugs: The effect of excluding women from clinical trials
For decades there has been gender bias in clinical research. Due to hormonal changes and for safety reasons, women are often not included in clinical trials and this exclusion has led to gaps in knowledge. This is also the case for studies with non-human animals, in which two-thirds are male. When women have been included in trials, the results have not been segregated, meaning that the results are applied equally to both men and women, even though the participation of women is lower. “When you don’t segregate by sex, you don’t know the situation for either men or women, or the specific characteristics of each of them, and that’s bad science,” notes Lucía Artazcoz. But this is changing, partly thanks to COVID.
“Men and women react differently to the coronavirus and this must be taken into account. The disease is teaching us not to treat patients as a homogeneous entity and we can all benefit from this, as it enables us to adjust treatments or medication doses.”
Maria Montoya, Head of the viral immunology group at the Margarita Salas Centre for Biological research of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)
Excluding women from clinical trials means that adverse drug reactions are either unknown or take years to be noticed and for measures to be taken. Eight out of ten drugs withdrawn from the market in the USA between 1997 and 2000 had greater health risks for women than for men. As an example, statins, a widely used drug, have been shown to have more adverse effects on women.
The way in which the drug is metabolised or how we benefit from the drug is different due to metabolic and genetic history as well as hormonal issues. Again, there is little information available, or incomplete information, regarding the adverse effects of drugs on pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the coronavirus vaccine is an example of this. The information on COVID in pregnant women has been contradictory since the start of the pandemic.
“In oncology, chemotherapy is administered according to body surface area and this does not take into account the differences in body composition between the sexes. The patient’s sex also affects the absorption, distribution, metabolisation and excretion of drugs.”
Dorothea Wagner, Head of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Unit at Lausanne University Hospital
It has been assumed that if a dose is appropriate for a man, it is also appropriate for a woman, but men and women are different in many respects, one of which is body mass. For example, men have 80% fat-free body mass and women have 65%, and this affects the way in which we metabolise a drug.
In oncology, “the same drug may be less effective or ineffective in one sex compared to the other, and we might have to use different drugs depending on whether the patient is a man or a woman,” Wagner adds. But this also poses a challenge because sex is not the only factor involved in the variability of responses to a drug. To this end, practitioners are calling for more clinical trials and the inclusion of non-binary genders, too.
To downplay the risks of thrombosis of the AstraZeneca vaccine, they were compared to those of contraceptive pills, which are more common, and no one was surprised. Without criminalising contraceptives, which were a liberation for women, women are demanding that they be provided with full information about side effects. The risk of thrombosis is estimated to be 1 to 10 in every 10,000 women, making it a rare adverse effect, but we must be aware of the factors that may favour it, such as family history, being over 35, smoking, excess weight and hypertension. The other most common side effects include mood disorders, reduced libido, migraines, nausea and fluid retention. They are also prescribed for other conditions such as polycystic ovaries and endometriosis, and this may lead to other possible solutions not being investigated.
“Over time, instead of investigating any small changes in the regularity of the menstrual cycle or in the intensity of menstruation to diagnose the causes, they have been initially treated with normal contraceptives.”
Carme Valls, Endocrinologist and author of Mujeres Invisibles Para la Medicina
The pills are said to “regulate the cycle,” but in actual fact they inhibit it. With contraceptives, there is no real bleeding because there is no ovulation. It is fictitious bleeding because during the break there is a sudden hormonal change. This is meant to mimic the female cycle because it is a way of reassuring women, but it is not really menstruation, although many women do not know this. “Why the male contraceptive pill has never been marketed is a matter for further reflection,” writes Valls. As for the relationship between contraceptives and breast cancer, there is much controversy and there are no conclusive studies, although Pla assures that “it has not been proven to be a risk factor.”
On the other hand, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) with oestrogens and progestin, which is used to alleviate some of the effects of the menopause, such as vaginal dryness and hot flushes, has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and women are advised against receiving it for over five years. According to a 2004 study, 43% of women who were prescribed this were unaware of the risks involved in its use.
“Menopause research is needed. I have found very few studies on this and every practitioner has different answers. Natural or artificial methods? There is no clear evidence. We’re in limbo. Have women been asked what concerns they have about this stage? Because the needs of women nowadays are not the same as 25 years ago.”
Elisa Llurba, Director of the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Department at Sant Pau Hospital
No more, no less.
The paradox when we talk about gender and health is that women live longer but have a poorer quality of life. “They have diseases that don’t kill them, but they don’t let them live,” according to public health specialist Lucía Artazcoz. Socialisation and gender roles condition our health. Primary care practitioners see this on a daily basis. “When you ask women what makes them suffer, you see that we all have a shared experience that has an impact on our health,” explains Meritxell Sánchez-Amat, a general practitioner at Besòs Primary Care Centre, who is calling for more time per patient and more home visits to allow for a psychosocial approach, as “drugs are the quick and easy answer”. She believes that introducing the gender variable would help avoid medicalisation and overdiagnosis.
“But it’s difficult. It means going against the tide. As practitioners, we are part of this patriarchal society, and as a healthcare institution we are not self-critical.”
Meritxell Sánchez-Amat, General Practitioner and President of the Catalan Forum for Primary Care (FOCAP)
Gender-sensitive medicine and research are also closely related to the fact that there are more women in leadership and decision-making positions. “It is essential to change the way we look at things,” says cardiologist Antonia Sambola. Gynaecologist Elisa Llurba, who is calling for the Catalan public broadcaster to dedicate an edition of its annual TV3 telethon exclusively to women’s health, admits that she was previously unaware of this gender bias. “I didn’t see it until now, because I considered many practices to be normal and I hadn’t understood them from that perspective.” According to fellow gynaecologist Elena Carreras, “gender bias in medicine exists, and as soon as you become aware of it, it’s no longer an option to do nothing.” This benefits men as well as women, “because this outlook makes us question whether we are doing it right.” While women are overdiagnosed with mental health problems, men are underdiagnosed with depression, fibromyalgia and osteoporosis, which are more common in women. This approach should also be taken on at universities and in the continuing education of healthcare professionals.
Including sex is not enough
To break this bias, it is not enough to include the sex variable alone. We must also include that of gender. “We just assume that a patient is male or female, but there are individuals who are intersex. We also assume that patients are cisgender – when gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth – but we must move away from assuming and start asking. We need to be more empathetic with gender identities because this strengthens the science,” said Ewelina Biskup, Professor at the Shanghai University of Medicine and Science, at a conference on gender-sensitive medicine held at Vall d’Hebron Hospital. This is the first hospital to have created a health and gender committee, and the Department of Health plans to extend this to all centres to incorporate this approach into healthcare practice. As Artazcoz says, “we are still a long way from gender-sensitive medicine”, and the first step is to stop using men as a benchmark. “Women’s health is no more and no less than men’s health. It’s just different.”