The True Cost of Medical Bias
Healthcare, one of the basic necessities/ pre-requisites for the functioning of a society, is an industry that has grown in leaps and bounds over the last century. From the development of Insulin shots by Fredrick Banting and Charles Best, to that of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk and the implementation of Penicillin as an antibiotic by Alexander Fleming, innovation and revolutionary vision has been one of the largest contributing factors in the raising of the average life expectancy of humans from 58.8 years to 79.3 years over the last century. This whopping 35% jump has been largely attributed to pharmaceutical breakthroughs making the creation of new drugs the single largest investment of drug manufacturers spending, on average $1.02 of every $6 of their yearly expenditure on Research and Development. The market for pharmaceutical Scientists today is soaring higher than it has ever before. This 10 Trillion dollar(USD) industry that accounts for 7% of the global GDP has consistently been one of the best corporate investments.
The medical industry’s glaring flaws are now much too large to turn a blind eye solely due to the sheer magnitude of these errors. The field of Medicine has, historically, existed in human society for over 5000 years with strong ties to the Egyptian Civilization under the Pharoh Imhotep. However, the last century has been the period of largest growth for this industry. Keeping that in mind, let us now consider the political and social climate of the early 1900s
This was a time when, along with the establishment of the base of the healthcare industry, society, institutionally excluded women from the mainstream ideologies of the time. Until the Suffragist movement’s success, women were consistently marginalized by society which meant that they were excluded from nearly all changes in society. This, in the context of the budding Healthcare system meant that women were excluded not only from the elite set of Pharmaceutical Scientists but also that they were excluded from medical clinical trials. The prevailing theory of the time, one that is still worryingly common today was that the fundamental biological framework of the biological male is the same as that of the female but just without “pesky” hormones that complicate clinical trial results.
This means that scientists at the time believed that the biological symptoms and remedies that applied to male subjects were identical to that of their female counterparts and hence all studies conducted on males would have results identical to that of the females.
The rise in popularity of of the Feminist Movement in the late 1950s till the early ‘70s meant that there was an exponential rise in the number of female doctors, pharmacists, pharmaceutical Scientists and other special-skill professions (such as cardiology and neurology) which today, means that the percentage of female doctors 48% is up from 9% of female doctors in 1950 and 6% in the late 1930s. This growth was a very healthy sign for the decrease in sexism in the Healthcare system however, the fanatic rise in capitalist culture, especially in the United States of America in the Cold War meant that drug manufacturers started initiatives to maximise profits and since R&D is extremely expensive, the test groups again marginalized women out of fear that the variation in medical readings on account of their Hormonal cycle will hinder their probability of quick FDA approvals which saves them money.
Thus, the integration of women in the field of medicine was restricted to the surface level which is why even though 51% of cardiovascular patients are female, only 39% of participants in clinical trials were female. Women are under-represented by a factor of 31% the same statistics for other conditions graphically represented:
This indicates a consistent pattern of under-representation of women. The Classic example of this problem is, a 1998 study by the national cancer institute that investigated the test subjects diets with respect to estrogen metabolisms and its links to cancer of the breast and uterus that included 0 female test subjects.
This institutional bias has meant that women across the world are less likely to be properly diagnosed and receive the right treatment for this condition according to multiple studies from PewResearch, UCLA, Stanford university and others,
1.women are 7 times as likely as men to be misdiagnosed and sent home on arrival to the hospital with heart attack symptoms
2.women are 3 times less likely to receive painkillers on going to the ER with abdominal pains
3.as per the NYT, women are 35% less likely to be recommended for a knee replacement
4.as per FDA reports, a total of 8 drugs were recalled over a span of 3 years due to the unacceptable risks to health of women
5.the verbal memory portion the global Alzheimer’s test does not take into account the fact that women are less perceptible to verbal memory dysfunction hence preventing early detection of Alzheimer’s
6.as per a university of Pennsylvania study, women are less likely to receive CPR from bystanders during cardiac arrests due to the myth that women are more susceptible to physical injury and that breasts impair the efficiency of resuscitation
7.the generally medically accepted symptoms of cardiac arrests do not account for the fact that women have subtler symptoms such as inexplicable fatigue and jaw pains
This informational asymmetry and unequal representation of data based on sex has meant that the medical community as a whole and doctors in specific are almost entirely unaware of the subtle distinctions in the biological symptoms and reactions of women as opposed to men. According to a John Hopkins study in 2018, nearly 250,000 of that year’s 2.8 million deaths were on account of medical misdiagnosis. Even though women are 1.6% less likely than men to die of natural causes in any given year in developed nations, they are 32.56% more likely than men to die at least in part, due to medical misdiagnosis (56% of misdiagnosed patients that die are women and 43% are male).
This ever-growing mountain of data just goes on to prove how the historical effect of the patriarchy is still killing women today. It is a chilling realisation that a significant contributing factor to the deaths caused by medical misdiagnosis of women is that medical professionals never bothered to get around to studying biological differences between males and females. It is now time for the world to ensure that no more women die due to the sexism of decades past. No longer can we ask women to pay with lives for the mistakes and asinine assumptions of sexist doctors.
Author : Aarya PG