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Closing the Healthcare Gender Gap Can Save Lives

by THINK Capital Blue Cross

Closing the Healthcare Gender Gap Can Save Lives

Women’s health issues have historically received less attention than those of their male counterparts, leading to a gender gap in the quality and availability of care. March is Gender Equality Month, an opportune time to learn how this gap is impacting our collective health – and how we can fix it.

Discussions of a “gender gap” often tend to focus on wages or workplace opportunities, but there’s an equally insidious type of gender gap that can impact healthcare – and it can take a costly and sometimes deadly toll.

Historically, women’s health issues have taken a secondary role to men’s health issues. Women have been under-represented in clinical healthcare research and studies show they often receive lower standards of care and treatment. Consider:

  • A 2015 report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association found women receive “significantly less aggressive treatments” after a heart attack than men. Women are 27% less likely than men to receive angioplasties to open clogged arteries and 38% less likely to undergo coronary bypass surgery.
  • From the 1970s until 1993, the Food and Drug Administration excluded “women of child-bearing potential” from clinical drug trials. One study concluded this policy meant “countless drugs were put on the market through clinical research that underrepresented women, exposing women to drugs that were not tested on them.”
  • A 2018 report reviewed dozens of medical studies to see if there were differences in how reports of pain from men and women were handled by medical providers. The study found men were more likely to be described as “stoic” or “brave” in dealing with pain, whereas women were typically described as “complaining” or “emotional.”
  • The same study found women generally received less effective pain relief medications and were prescribed more antidepressants and given more mental health referrals than men. Women’s complaints of physical pain, the study determined, were more often “psychologized” than properly diagnosed.
  • Women are more likely to feel a healthcare provider is ignoring or dismissing their symptoms, and more likely to feel they have been treated differently because of their gender, according to a 2019 study.

This healthcare gender gap not only can lessen the quality of care, it also can deter women from getting care, according to Dr. Jennifer Chambers, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross.

“When a person feels as though they aren’t being listened to or their health concerns aren’t being sufficiently addressed, they might become reluctant to even seek healthcare services,” Dr. Chambers said. “While that’s an understandable reaction, it also can be a dangerous one if medical conditions go undiagnosed or untreated.”

There are ways to close the healthcare gender gap and improve the quality of, and access to, women’s healthcare. Capital Blue Cross, for instance, examines clinical data from its membership to identify where it might be able to address potential gaps in care.

Capital also supports efforts in its communities to better address women’s health issues, including sponsoring women’s heart health events, breast cancer support services, and programs to encourage more women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

There also have been shifts in recent years to make clinical research more reflective of gender issues, and there is an emerging awareness of broader health equity challenges – including those stemming from gender, race, and socioeconomic factors – that need to be addressed.

“We still have work to do in addressing gender-based health equity challenges, but there are hopeful signs of progress,” Dr. Chambers said. “One of the most important signs is women are becoming better represented in medical research and in the healthcare field as a whole, and that type of representation is important to help close the gender gap.”

THINK (Trusted Health Information, News, and Knowledge) is a community publication of Capital Blue Cross. Our mission is to provide education, resources, and news on the latest health and insurance issues.