Good health may well be the greatest gift that life has to offer, but it’s often a gift that many of us take for granted until it’s gone. Indeed, you’re perhaps never more vulnerable than when you find yourself facing an illness, when you’re tasked with protecting, preserving, or returning to wellness.
When that happens, you need the right allies in your corner. Unfortunately, though, many women struggle to find the right healthcare team. Research has shown that gender biases, both conscious and unconscious, persist in the global healthcare system, significantly undermining the quality of medical care that women receive.
This is why it is so important for women to learn to advocate for themselves when it comes to their healthcare. The good news is that it’s not that difficult, provided that you have a plan and, above all, the right mindset.
Why Advocacy Matters
When it comes to medical care, learning to advocate for yourself isn’t just about taking control of your health. In some cases, self-advocacy can be a matter of life and death. A host of scientific studies supports what women around the world have long known: That women’s symptoms, especially regarding pain, are far more likely than men’s to be minimised, dismissed, or misdiagnosed.
Several factors seem to contribute to the disproportionate number of misdiagnoses and delayed diagnoses affecting women. Persistent gender stereotypes characterizing women as more emotional and, indeed, as more “hysterical” than men make it all too easy for healthcare providers to attribute physical symptoms to psychosomatic causes, such as stress or hormonal fluctuations.
There’s also another reason why healthcare providers may fail to recognize the manifestations of illness in women–the lack of data on women’s health. Historically, medical research has been done primarily by and on men. The default medical research subject is generally male, and the training provided to healthcare providers, for the most part, is based on male physiology.
It’s little wonder, then, that physicians, no matter how well-trained or well-intentioned, would fail to recognise the important and often substantial differences between males and females when it comes to symptomatology.
You Are the Expert on Your Body
One of the most formidable challenges that women face in the doctor/patient encounter is overcoming the very real sense of a hierarchy operating in the clinic. Patients often feel that it is natural and, indeed, even necessary to defer to the expert training of the physician, even when they know instinctively that what they are being told or how they are being treated is not right.
Deferring to your physician when your gut tells you not to, though, can have dire consequences. No matter how learned your physician may be, no one knows your body better than you do. You’ve lived in your body your entire life. When it comes to your body, you are the true expert.
Owning the Right to Self-Advocate
Remembering that, when it comes to your body and health, there is no higher authority than you is the first step in developing the mindset you need to become an effective self-advocate. It’s also imperative to keep in mind that, when decisions are made, you, not your doctor, will be the one to live with the consequences, for good or for ill.
Thus, when you begin to advocate for yourself, you will need to be prepared to take an active and leading role in your healthcare. This means staying informed, doing your research, and monitoring your own well-being. It also means learning to find your voice, to be honest, and to speak up without fear.
If it’s difficult for you to assert yourself with your doctors or healthcare team, then try practicing what you need to say in front of a trusted friend or family member. If someone in your life has medical training, then work with them on strategies for communicating with your healthcare provider in a meaningful way.
You may even enlist them to come with you to your appointments, if only for some added moral support and an attentive ear. Your support person can help ask questions on your behalf, can back you up if and when communication challenges arise with your doctor, and can make notes and help you recall the conversation later, easing some of the pressure you may feel in this inevitably stressful situation.
Finally, if you find that you’re still not being heard, it may well be time for a second opinion or a new doctor entirely.
Knowing how to self-advocate is important in every situation, but, for women in the healthcare setting, it’s essential. It begins with developing the appropriate mindset, recognising your authority over your own body and your right to speak your truth about your needs, goals, and values regarding your health. It ends with the right healthcare for yourself.