Nova Scotia·Health Hacks

How to navigate a health system 'riddled' with gender biases

A Nova Scotia health-care consultant says the medical community's failure to recognize heart attacks in women is part of a much bigger problem with gender bias in the health-care system.

Patients are the experts on their own health, says health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton

Women are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed when they're having a heart attack than men, says health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton. ( Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock)

This is part of a series from CBC's Information Morning where Halifax health-care consultant Mary Jane Hampton discusses her "health hacks" — ways to make your experience with the health-care system better.

A Nova Scotia health-care consultant says the medical community's failure to recognize heart attacks in women is part of a much bigger problem with gender bias in the health system.

Nicole Nickerson from Lunenburg, N.S., told CBC's Mainstreet last week that she suffered two heart attacks in the span of just four years. The 36-year-old urged other women to advocate for themselves.

Mary Jane Hampton agrees. 

"You have to persist, and you need to be aware — whether man or woman or any ethnic background — there are biases built into the health system that may play to your disadvantage and you need to be mindful of that when you enter the system," Hampton told CBC's Information Morning.

She said for a long time, heart disease was seen as a men's health issue because most of the research was performed on men, more specifically white men.

Complicating factors is the way men and women describe their symptoms.

While men often describe a crushing pain in their chest when they're having a heart attack, women use words like pressure or say they feel uncomfortable. 

That means, for example, that a man and a women who both show up to the emergency department having a heart attack could be treated very differently, Hampton said.

It's not just heart attacks ...our health columnist warns the system is riddled with gender biases that can affect diagnosis and outcomes. 7:14

"Statistically, you are seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed as a woman having a heart attack right in an emergency department than if you're a man," she said.

She said data published last year in the U.S.-based journal, Women's Health Issues, also showed that women with heart attack symptoms were less likely than men to receive aspirin, be resuscitated or transported to the hospital in ambulances using lights and sirens.

Hampton said the gender bias isn't contained to heart disease.

Hampton encourages all patients to advocate for themselves. (Robert Short/CBC)

"An 80-year-old man with dementia is going to fare better in the health system than an 80-year-old woman with dementia," she said. 

This is largely because men have been the focus of clinical trials and research on health problems such as heart disease and dementia.

This creates a disadvantage, but not just for women, Hampton said.

For example, she said young boys are more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for ADHD than girls, and men are also less likely to be diagnosed with depression than women.

"It cuts both ways, and the health system is riddled with these gender biases," she said.

READ MORE FROM OUR HEALTH HACK SERIES

With files from CBC's Information Morning and CBC's Mainstreet

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