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Women Need to Be Their Own Health Advocates

Endometriosis, ADHD, and coronary heart disease are all diseases that doctors point to as being consistently underdiagnosed in women. Endometriosis, as an advocacy site (endofound.org) states, typically has a 7-10 year diagnosis delay, which can be incredibly harmful for a disease with the potential to cause infertility and extreme pain if left untreated. Similarly, the BBC reported that ADHD has an incredible gender disparity in diagnosis numbers, partly attributed to neurobiological differences that affect how girls and women experience symptoms, as well as a purported increased ability in women to mask symptoms. Coronary heart disease, despite its position as the leading global cause of death for men and women, presents differently in women and is understudied in its effects and treatments, according to a 2005 article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

These are far from the only illnesses that affect women in higher numbers and are often underdiagnosed. For example, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects anywhere from 10-18% of women, and yet up to 75% of those with the disease remain undiagnosed, according to a 2018 NCBI article. As a woman who has undergone diagnosis processes for these kinds of underdiagnosed illnesses, I attribute much of my success in getting a doctor to not only listen to my symptoms, but to test me based on them, to my mom (who is also a medical professional) advocating on my behalf. Even with the assistance of someone in the field, the process was still far from easy and took multiple years.

Through my own experiences and the available statistics, it has become clear to me that women need to advocate on their own behalf until the medical field becomes capable of fully addressing gender disparities. Clue, which also has a period tracking app, released an article specifically focused on how those with periods can advocate for themselves which has some great information. Personally, I think the most important element is to inform yourself as much as possible so you have better knowledge on which to base your questions about a specific issue, and to ask loved ones for support. Whether or not you know anyone in the medical field, simply understanding what “normal” means for them in regards to an issue you are having (do you experience this symptom around your period? Do you ever get so tired after lunch it’s hard to focus? etc.), asking for help researching, or simply asking for emotional support while you try to get or understand a diagnosis can go a long way towards feeling more encouraged during a difficult process. As for the gathering of information, it is not just about reactive measures, but also staying aware of family history to better inform professionals, as well as understanding what you might be at risk for before it becomes a problem.

It is obviously unfair to ask women, or any other groups for whom healthcare has historically been difficult to obtain, to have to advocate for themselves when it comes to getting care.  However, while this can be an issue that affects all genders, the statistics show that it is often women who are dismissed and not studied, especially women of color, as the Washington Post reports. Hopefully, as women feel more comfortable sharing their experiences with long diagnosis processes and as more research is conducted, change will start to occur such that women no longer have to push for equality in what feels like every single domain of their lives. But, for now, women must continue fighting for their medical treatment.

Caitlin Donnelly

St Andrews '22

Caitlin is a fourth year international relations student at St. Andrews. Caitlin was born and raised in California and has played water polo for many years, continuing the sport at university. Her interests range widely and when she isn't facing deadlines she enjoys reading, baking, and spending time with her dog.
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