4 Tips to Help Your Doctor Take Your Symptoms Seriously
The problem is not new. For decades, women have complained their doctors don’t listen to them, believe them or take their symptoms seriously. Why are doctors dismissive of their female patients?
“It’s not so much that doctors are dismissive of women,” says Andrea Klemes DO, chief medical officer, MDVIP. “There are many other factors involved. I think the biggest problem is that men’s and women’s bodies don’t work the same way, which means doctors need to recognize this and treat genders differently.“
For example, some conditions present different symptoms in men and women. Let’s use a heart attack as an example. Men usually experience “classic” heart attack symptoms -- chest pain and tightness, fatigue, abnormal heart rate, cold sweats, indigestion and anxiety — whereas women are more apt to report chest pain, upper back pressure, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness and/or shortness of breath.
The difference in symptoms often affect which tests get ordered and the treatment protocol prescribed. As a result, 50 percent of women are likely to receive the wrong diagnosis after a heart attack compared to men, according to a recent study published in the European Heart Journal Acute Cardiovascular Care. And 30 percent of women are more likely to have a condition misdiagnosed or overlooked after a stroke.
But these statistics didn’t shine a spotlight on a new problem -- a study published in New England Journal of Medicine back in 2000 also found that women were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed and discharged from a hospital emergency department, even when they’re having a heart attack.
“For years, medical researched focused on men. One reason was women’s bodies fluctuate during the month much more than men’s do,” says Klemes. “Our understanding of women’s bodies has suffered as a result.”
This lack of understanding has led to women with ovarian cysts, endometriosis, kidney stones and appendicitis to be told their symptoms are menstrual cycle related. Studies have found that when women are in pain, they wait longer than men for relief and are prescribed sedatives (as opposed to pain medication) much more often than men. And about 75 percent of Americans with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, Sjögren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders are women. Yet it takes almost five years after symptoms appear and an average of five doctors for a woman to be properly diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
The good news is that in 1993, the National Institutes of Health mandated that all government funded research include women and minorities as subjects. But we still have a long way to go before gender disparities in healthcare are resolved.
But you can take matters into your own hands. Here are four tips to help your doctor take your symptoms seriously:
- Do some research to find a doctor who fits your needs. If you’re looking for a new doctor, check the doctor’s ratings and reviews. Healthgrades, Castle Connolly, RateMDs. U.S. News Doctor Ratings and Vitals are just a few examples of the ratings and review sites available. Keep in mind, the ratings are opinion based and don’t factor in the doctor’s care, but it will give you a start on how patients view a particular doctor.
- Prepare for appointments. Keep a diary of your symptoms and take it with you to the appointment, along with a list of your questions and medications you take (include prescription, over the counter and supplements).
- Speak up if you disagree and ask open ended questions. If you describe your problem to your doctor and you feel it’s dismissed, speak up. Reiterate the problem is new and ask open ended questions like “Why did I begin experiencing these symptoms now?” “What else could be causing the problem?” “What do I do if these symptoms get worse?”
- Review the appointment. When you have a few minutes, think about your appointment, and ask yourself some questions such as “Did you feel the doctor listened to you?” “Did the doctor give you a chance to ask questions? Were those questions answered? Did the doctor provide some sort of a plan to tackle your concerns?” If you felt your concerns weren’t addressed, get a second opinion from another doctor or switch doctors altogether.
It’s important to find a doctor that will listen to you. If you don’t feel it’s possible to form a strong doctor-patient relationship with the doctor you are seeing, the doctor may not be a good fit for you,” says Klemes.