Women Get It Worse In The Healthcare System

November Jing - a hospital in China’s Mile CountyPhoto by November Jing

Is your doctor a dickhead? Well, now there’s a hashtag for you. Asher Wolf explores the #DoctorsAreDickheads hashtag…

If we cry, we’re labelled hysterical. If we’re stoic, we’re tarred as pretenders. If we ask for pain treatment, we’re drug seekers. Refuse drugs: we’re attention seekers. If we challenge treatment plans or doctors diagnosis, we’re resistant or non-compliant — and risk being written-up as threatening, placed in psych units or denied health care if we complain.

Our symptoms of illness are chalked up to the ‘female condition’. Feel bad during your luteal phase? It’s PMS. Pain during menstruation? It’s your period. Middle-aged and feeling unwell? Menopause. Doctors far too often attribute symptoms of illness to our wombs and ovaries, rather than examining the entirety of our bodies.

We’re paternalised and infantilised. We’re psychosomatised.

We’re left in pain longer than men. The conditions that afflict more women than men get less funding, less medical education and fewer patient treatment pathways or clinical trials.

We tried being engaged patients: learned all there is to know on the internet about our conditions and watched the look of annoyance on our doctor’s faces when we tried to speak up. We’ve called our doctor’s receptionists about missing referrals and long wait times. We’ve attended grievance meetings and talked to patient liaison, who’ve tutted “too bad, so sad”. We’ve written letters to the hospital board about denial of care.

We bring male allies as our advocates to our medical appointments nowadays, because we’ve previously cried in the parking lot after rude meetings and dismissive comments from doctors.

We’re told our pain isn’t real. We’re told to go home. We’re told not to come back to E.R. unless we’re dying. We’re told the E.R. isn’t the right place for us. We’re told our GP can’t diagnose us. Our condition is “too complex”. We’re told the public waiting list for autoimmune, rheumatology, endocrinology, immunology, gynaecology, cardiovascular and genetic referrals is six months, twelve months, eighteen months.

We’re told if we want real healthcare we need to get out of the public healthcare system, get a job and insurance, even while our bodies are filled with pain. We’re told we’re sick, but not sick enough for DSP and the NDIS.

We’re told we need to wait. We’re told to exercise. We’re told “try yoga”. We’re told “maybe you’d feel better if you had counselling”. We’re told to do less. We’re told to take two aspirin. We’re told if our condition was real, we’d be diagnosed. We’re told that if our condition is real, we’ll eventually get diagnosed before we’re dead. We’re told “you’d be dead by now if you were really sick”. We’re told our doctors know patients worse off than us that aren’t such whingers.

We’ve tried being nice. We’ve tried being polite. We’ve entered into conversations on social media with the medical community, engaged with other chronically ill people and people with disability on social media, and chatted on hashtags like #Spoonie and #ChronicallyIll. Doctors ignored us. Doctors talked down to us. Doctors didn’t want to read the horror stories. Doctors didn’t want to hear us, doctors told us to “go campaign for change if you don’t like it”.

This is why the Twitter hashtag #DoctorsAreDickheads is the predictable result of generations of doctors refusing to listen to women’s experiences in the healthcare system. It’s a cry of rage, started by sex education Youtube vlogger @StevieBoebi, who was recently diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – a condition that currently has an average excruciating wait-time of 20 years to diagnosis in Australia – and Kim Saunders (@CrippledScholar), a Phd student in disability studies.

The #DoctorsAreDickheads hashtag is a stream of anger, horror and gore describing instances of harm and gaslighting by doctors, described by patients in vivid detail in the hashtag. None of the stories are used to name doctors. These are the cases of harm rarely told in public and, although the hashtag is singularly focused on doctors who commit acts of malpractice and abuse, some doctors have reacted badly to the conversation. According to those doctors, it’s slur against them  and they’ve reacted by swinging the focus onto the swear-word in the hashtag as though the word topples everyone’s argument. They see the word “dickhead” – applied only to doctors who harm patients – as worse than the harm caused by “dickhead” doctors to patients who suffer for years.

The doctors apologising to patients on the hashtag are far and few between. There’s outrage, blustering hurt pride and bruised egos — doctors angrily commenting on the hashtag seem to think they’re all good doctors; great surgeons; wonderful GPs; heroes who save lives, each and every time. Every doctor commenting derisively on the hashtag appears to think their entire profession deserves nothing but the utmost respect for every member — even the dickheads.

But some doctors have pointed out that these patient stories need to be read, even if it hurts doctors’ feelings and egos to read.

The hashtag isn’t workshopped as part of some slick campaign and it’s not meant to make doctors feel good about themselves. It’s a jolt to the system, yelling “wake up.” It’s a desperate act, by desperate people in an attempt to be heard and an even more desperate attempt to heal.

Doctors should be upset, offended and angry on behalf of their patients: the lack of justice some women have received in the healthcare system has left them with nothing except illness, chronic pain and swear words — and that’s just not good enough.


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Asher WolfAsher Wolf is the Cryptoparty founder and 2014 Amnesty Australia ‘Humanitarian Media Award’ recipient. Her work can be found on
https://medium.com/@Asher_Wolf and @Asher_Wolf.

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