Do women and girls deserve access to health care? 

It’s a harsh question to ask (and should have a very easy answer) but each time a woman dies in childbirth, or has lower access to life-saving vaccines, or is afraid to report gender-based violence and seek the treatments she needs, it seems more and more like the world’s answer to that question is no. 

Access to health care is a basic human right, and yet it is denied to so many women around the world. From maternal health care budgets being cut, to major gaps in diagnoses because women’s issues are often trivialized (we’ll get into that in a little bit), to transgender women being denied treatment altogether — it’s appalling just how urgent the issue of access to health care for women really is. 

It is a result of centuries of gender inequality and also furthers the gender bias agenda, because at its core the issue isn’t just questioning whether women and girls should have access to health care, it’s questioning whether women and girls deserve to live. 

Despite this, women are critical to the health care workforce, and without them we’d lose 90% of our patient-facing frontline health defenders whom we rely on to tackle global health threats — for instance, could you imagine what handling the COVID-19 pandemic without women in health care would have been like? As women health professionals have repeatedly been proven to have better bedside care for patients than men, it would likely have been bleak to say the least. 

We need to work towards achieving gender equality so that all women, everywhere can have access to critical health care. If you’re still unsure about how serious the issue is, here are five facts that prove we need to take urgent action to ensure women get better access to health care. 

1. Medical Research Leaves Women Behind. 

There are undeniable differences in the bodies of people of different sexes, they function differently, and respond to health circumstances differently. Symptoms for the same condition or disease can look different from person to person, and medications can have varying side effects depending on your biology. 

Historically, it was believed that the only differences between women and men’s bodies is their sexual organs — women’s sexual organs were deemed inferior and suitable only for childbirth, and because of this, a lot of research behind health issues, treatments, and medications has been conducted on men or male bodies. Not so much for women.

The Director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institute of Health in the United States, Dr. Janine Clayton, put it this way: “Because we have studied women less, we know less about them. The result is that women may not have always received the most optimal care.” 

However, it seems as if this issue isn’t going anywhere soon, as research into women’s health care still lacks significant funding globally — without this funding, it remains difficult for women to receive adequate care. 

2. Men Are Diagnosed Quicker Than Women. 

It takes women longer to be diagnosed with critical health issues than men, and at its worst, women can be misdiagnosed, or go completely undiagnosed. 

The lack of research is a huge factor in this, however, certain cultural norms and ingrained gender biases also contribute to it. In fact, 57% of women surveyed by digital health care app Livi in parts of Europe and the UK reported that their health issues had been misdiagnosed. Three of the largest issues women are underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed for are endometriosis, autism, and heart attacks

3. Women Are More Likely to Die of Heart Attack Than Men. 

Speaking of heart attacks, because of this lack of diagnosis and implicit bias, women are less likely to experience evidence-based diagnoses when it comes to certain heart-related health issues and are less likely to receive adequate treatment for these heart issues.

"The studies are one more piece of evidence that women’s heart complaints are sadly not taken as seriously as men’s…. There is this long held assumption that women are protected against heart disease by estrogen; but as with the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, that is no longer the case,” Dr. Steven Gundry, a cardiothoracic surgeon and Founder of Gundry MD told Medical News Today.

4. About 75% of Health Care Leadership Roles Are Held by Men.

Despite the fact that women account for 67% of the global health and social care workforce, women are signficantly underrepresented when it comes to leadership positions in health. 

Having women in decision-making positions in health care can make all the difference when it comes to adequately caring for women and girls, and understanding their needs. 

5. Women Are Perceived to Be in Less Pain Than Men. 

According to research by McGill University, women are assumed to be both more emotionally volatile, and to have a higher pain threshold, than men. As such, their pain is often reported by doctors as being "emotional", "psychogenic", and "not real" — according to a study titled “The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain.”

“In general, women report more severe levels of pain, more frequent incidences of pain, and pain of longer duration than men, but are nonetheless treated for pain less aggressively,” scientists behind this study highlighted.

As half of the world’s population and the largest part of the global health care system, women deserve better. There are simply no excuses for gender inequality to exist so vividly in the health care space, and we need to speak up and act now in order for real changes to take shape. 

If this article interested you, then you might also be interested in our latest initiative to alleviate global inequities. The Move Afrika: Rwanda campaign aims to promote stronger health systems as a pathway to promoting equity, create jobs and economic opportunity, and to call for the defense of our planet and its inhabitants. Take action with us for health systems, economic opportunity, and the planet and you could earn tickets to join us at the BK Arena in Kigali on Dec. 6. You can also purchase priority tickets directly. Here's everything you need to know about the Move Afrika: Rwanda event and campaign.

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5 Facts That Show Women Deserve Better Access to Health Care

By Khanyi Mlaba