When I look at the history of women’s health, I see a metaphor for the struggle women face every day—and I also see where and why we need change.
Let’s put aside the entire scope of female struggle for just a moment, and look at the microcosm of female health care in Western societies. For decades, we have had to fight for our rights to birth control, mammograms and pap smears, breast cancer treatment and reconstruction, and other reproductive-related issues. Investment in these has led to a sort of necessary myopia to win the fight for woman-centric health care. We chose our battles.
However, what we ignored was a massive global killer. More women die of heart disease than all cancers combined. While women defended their reproductive rights, research focused on men’s hearts: trials on treatments and diagnostic tools excluding the unique attributes of women’s hearts. By 1984, women were dying of heart disease more often than men.
Now, however, we can no longer ignore the reality of women and heart disease. But two issues stand in the way of saving lives. One is the stereotype that women simply do not get heart disease. When women complain of fatigue or stress, it is easy for doctors to agree that fatigue or stress are the primary problems and not look further. The mortality-based evidence indicates this stereotyping must stop.
Second, and at the risk of further stereotyping, women need to do more to acknowledge their concerns, rather than putting themselves last, underplaying their symptoms, or failing to mention them. An apology is part of what makes it easy for doctors to dismiss a woman’s symptoms.
And what about that metaphor? Gender stereotypes are the crux of the problem – for equalities and healthcare alike. We must see and evaluate women for who they are as individuals, not as some homogenous gender, if we want to change systems, economies and mindsets. Women – and men – need to be assessed with utmost diligence for who they are and what they say. And they need to learn to speak out in demanding this.
Decades into the future, I hope we can look back on 2016 as a turning point, when gender stereotypes were shattered and woman finally began to be seen, and even more importantly to see themselves, in all their individual glory. Let’s appreciate the qualities that only womanhood can offer, and respect the problems that womanhood presents, but beyond that, let’s begin to see all people as individuals worthy of respect and care, regardless of gender. Once that happens, everything will change.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum is a cardiologist and director of Women's Heart Health at the Heart and Vascular Institute, Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and author of Dr.Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart Healthy Life.