British Columbia

Half of women in B.C. say doctors have played down their health concerns, report finds

A new report by the B.C. Women's Health Foundation shows many women are struggling to access the medical attention they need and when they do, health care providers routinely dismiss their concerns.

1 in 2 women surveyed felt a physician had diminished, overlooked symptoms

'Even women doctors are more likely to judge women patients," says Lori Brotto, executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute at B.C. Women's Hospital. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The health-care system in British Columbia is failing women of all ages and races, says a new report.

The report, called In Her Words, found women across B.C. are struggling to get access to health-care providers and, when they do, they feel their concerns are often dismissed — some say, simply for being a woman. 

The data shows one in three women reported great difficulty accessing the care they needed, and 51 per cent said a physician had diminished or overlooked their symptoms.

Researchers surveyed 1,000 women across the province for the report, which was produced by the B.C. Women's Health Foundation in partnership with Pacific Blue Cross.

Dr. Lori Brotto, executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute at B.C. Women's Hospital, said while care is inadequate for women across all ages, the findings were worse for immigrants, refugees, women with chronic health conditions, women living in poverty and Indigenous women.

Three out of four Indigenous women reported that accessing care was difficult. In some cases, they reported, health-care providers dismissed symptoms and told Indigenous women their symptoms were the consequence of lifestyle choices, such as excessive drinking, and not serious illnesses.

'Even women doctors are more likely to judge'

Brotto said there can be an intergenerational effect if women are not accurately diagnosed because deteriorating health can impact her family and community.

"I think we would argue these are sub-groups that particularly need and deserve quality health care in order to prevent future adverse health outcomes," said Brotto in an interview Wednesday on CBC's The Early Edition.

Brotto called the findings unfortunate, but not surprising. She said in her own experience working as a clinician, she heard from hundreds of women, from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, who had numerous experiences of being told their health concerns were "all in their head."

This is evident in the report, which shows 15 per cent of women surveyed felt health-care providers dismissed them solely because of their gender.

"Even women doctors are more likely to judge women patients," said Brotto.

Province responds

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the ministry is working closely with the B.C. Women's Health Foundation to improve access to services for women, and particularly for immigrant, Indigenous, and low-income women.

He said the province is leading the country in providing breast density information with screening mammography results, as well as with respect to reproductive rights, and this is the direct result of women raising their voices and being heard.

According to Dix, the NDP government has also made improvements in cancer and senior care that directly benefit women. He also noted that all five regional health authorities are led by women, a change that happened during his time as minister.

"That doesn't mean we are there yet, or anywhere close, and that's why we need to continue to listen to women's voices every day in our health-care system," said Dix. 

'As health-care providers, we need to do better'

Brotto said the findings point to an urgent need to invest in medical research that separately looks at gender, as well as training for providers to address unconscious biases. She also suggested women vote for federal election candidates whose party platforms support funding for women's health research.

She said it's only in the past 15 years or so that medical drug trials began to include women.

"It is staggering," said Brotto. "As health-care providers, we need to do better."

The report surveyed women who identified as a woman, regardless if they were born biologically female or not. 

To hear the complete interview with Dr. Lori Brotto, click on the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition