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What is Gender Bias in Healthcare?

what is gender bias in healthcare

Gender bias in healthcare is the disparity in treatment and care that individuals receive based on their gender. Gender bias impacts various aspects of medical care, including diagnosis, treatment, research, and the interaction between healthcare professionals and patients. While this post concentrates on biases affecting males and females, it does not address the specific disparities experienced by gender non-conforming individuals. However, recognizing and understanding gender bias is crucial for healthcare professionals and organizations dedicated to equitable care for all patients.

Understanding gender bias in medical treatment

Gender bias in healthcare manifests in multiple ways, each significantly affecting patients' health and well-being. Examples include:

  • Diagnostic Bias: A common issue is the underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of conditions in women or men based on gender stereotypes. For example, heart disease is frequently underdiagnosed in women, as it is often considered a predominantly male condition.
  • Treatment Bias: Patient gender can influence the treatment approach, varying in levels of attention, types of treatment, or pain management strategies.
  • Research Bias: A historical focus on male subjects in medical research has led to gaps in understanding the impact of conditions on women.
  • Health Policy and Access: Gender can affect access to healthcare services, influenced by factors like economic status and cultural norms.
  • Communication and Perception: How healthcare professionals interact with patients can differ based on gender, influencing how care is perceived and followed.
  • Mental Health Stigma: Gender stereotypes can create biases in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. For example, depression in men might be underdiagnosed due to prevailing notions of masculinity.
  • Reproductive Health: Conditions related to women's reproductive health may be undervalued or stigmatized, affecting funding, research, and quality of care.
  • Intersectionality: Gender bias in healthcare often intersects with other forms of bias, exacerbating disparities.

History of gender bias in healthcare

The history of gender bias in medicine has roots in a male-dominated research approach, creating a knowledge gap about female health and perpetuating stereotypes and assumptions. This bias has led to overdiagnosis and overtreatment in men and underdiagnosis in women, with conditions like autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases often misunderstood or overlooked in women. Developmental conditions like ADHD and autism are also frequently underdiagnosed in women and girls due to gender-based research biases.

Medical bias against women 

Medical bias against women is widespread and harmful. Studies indicate that women's pain is often taken less seriously than men's, leading to longer wait times for treatment and less aggressive pain management. Women are more frequently prescribed sedatives instead of pain medication, perpetuating the notion that women's symptoms are more emotional than physical. 

Male bias in medicine 

Male bias in medicine also presents significant issues. Men are typically the default subjects in medical research, creating standards that may not accurately apply to women. This focus on men can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment in men while underdiagnosing and undertreating women.

Addressing gender bias in healthcare

 Healthcare organizations can address gender bias in healthcare with initiatives that include:

  • Raising awareness among healthcare professionals.
  • Promoting inclusive research that considers gender differences.
  • Implementing policies that address diverse gender needs.

Healthcare executives can enhance gender-equitable care through implicit bias training for staff, focusing on gender-balanced research and considering gender differences in clinical guidelines. By continuously reviewing practices for biases and validating patient concerns, healthcare professionals can contribute to a more equitable healthcare system.

Recognizing and addressing gender bias in healthcare is essential for establishing gender-equitable services. While the legacy of gender bias in medicine is significant, with dedicated efforts and continuous education, the healthcare community can make gender bias a part of history rather than a factor in present-day healthcare.

For more on bias, read our posts: 

Implicit Bias Training