What Facilities Should Know About Gender Inequality in Healthcare

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Written by Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
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Reviewed by Diana Campion, MSN, APRN, ANP-C Education Development Nurse, Content Writer, IntelyCare
Hospital executives meet for a breakfast meeting.

Did you know that over 800 women die every day from pregnancy and childbirth complications? It’s the leading cause of death for girls and women between the ages of 15-19 globally.

The discrimination, unequal rights, and mistreatment of women is a global crisis, and it’s not unique to poor or developing countries. In America, gender inequality in healthcare impacts the lives of women — particularly minority women — every day. For example, in one survey of healthcare interactions over a two-year period, nearly 30% of women experienced doctors dismissing their concerns.

As a healthcare leader, you can help to change the narrative by getting informed about the issues affecting your community and the diseases, conditions, and interpersonal interactions your patients experience. Learn how your leadership is needed to help address gender inequality and improve outcomes in your organization.

How Does Gender Affect Healthcare?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender as a social construct independent from biological sex which describes the characteristics of women, men, girls, and boys. Social norms around gender include the behaviors, roles, and relationships associated with being a woman or a man. While sex can influence the risk of disease and certain genetic outcomes, the WHO notes that gender norms and socialization contribute to disparate healthcare access, quality, and outcomes, as well as the health risks that women face — and take — compared to men.

In the practice setting, gender inequality in healthcare can often be seen in the mismanagement of a women’s health condition because it isn’t as well understood. As a historically male profession, the medical practice was originally developed by studying the male body.

The inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research and trials wasn’t commonplace in the U.S. until 1989 when the National Institute of Health updated its policies to that effect. It took a few more years until Congress required this by law in 1993. This was a major step in health equality and in taking a different approach to the way we study women’s health, but it also means that the practice of medicine is still playing catch up.

Examples of Gender Inequality in Healthcare

The predominantly male focus of the healthcare profession until fairly recently in the modern era has produced some lingering biases which persist today. For example, migraines, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases are commonly undertreated and are often mischaracterized as mental health issues. The dismissal of women’s health issues as hormonal problems can be traced back to early medical days. The term “hysterical” — often used to describe a woman’s reaction to pain or stress — is derived from the word “hystera,” which means uterus.

Another example of inequity occurs when a woman is treated differently for the same condition that a man experiences. For example, men having a heart attack are more likely to experience “classic” symptoms like chest-clutching pain. For women, the symptoms can be more discrete, such as feelings of generalized pain, indigestion, or heartburn. These differences in clinical presentation — and misunderstandings about them — are one reason why women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men.

Gender Inequality in Healthcare Statistics

Healthcare is constantly changing, and emerging research helps improve the care your facility delivers. But without addressing gender inequality in the healthcare setting, disparities like these will continue to exist:

How Can Your Facility Promote Gender Equality in Healthcare?

Gender bias can occur anywhere from the organizational level to patient-provider relationships. As a healthcare facility leader, you can review the systems in place at your organization that could be contributing to gender inequality. Making sure that you have the right measures and data collection processes in place is a good first step as data can help uncover hidden biases.

It’s also essential to understand the demographics within your community to know how you can best serve your patients. This helps identify at-risk populations who may be affected by implicit bias and discrimination. Below are a few ways you can begin to incorporate best-practice care to prevent and limit gender inequality in your healthcare organization.

Promote Workplace Diversity

Establish an organizational culture that places emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion for all staff and patients. This starts with evaluating the treatment and pay rates for women in healthcare, who make up 76% of the healthcare workforce. But diversity and equality doesn’t have to stop at examining pay equity. When gender inequality in healthcare is addressed at an organizational level, values of unity and equality can more easily make their way into patient care. Review your company’s stance on diversity and inclusion and strategize ways to promote diversity within the organization.

Example: A healthcare organization offers monthly town halls to celebrate staff members’ differences within the company and to highlight gender equality success stories.

Uncover Root Causes of Gender Bias

Societal conditioning, company culture, and individual belief systems can all contribute to gender bias in healthcare. Gather data to understand the underlying issues that could be contributing to gender inequality at your facility.

Example: A women’s health clinic conducts a survey for pain management in patients with endometriosis. Providers are also surveyed on their perceptions of pain control. The results are reviewed to identify gaps in patient-provider communications and implicit bias.

Focus on Primary Prevention for High-Risk Patient Populations

Know your community demographics and the health conditions commonly seen in your organization. Create an action plan to minimize the risk of adverse health outcomes for high-risk populations.

Example: A healthcare facility serving a large population of indigenous women offers public education to prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Obstetricians within the organization receive cultural competency training to effectively communicate and treat women in this region.

Be the Leader in Your Community

Your healthcare organization is committed to treating the dynamic needs within your community. For everyone to receive equal treatment, it’s essential to prevent and reduce gender inequality in healthcare. Don’t miss out on the latest healthcare insights and best practices that will help your organization be a valued leader in your community.