9 August 2021  |

Dear Aunt Sevvy:

I liked your answer to a woman who was asking about her declining libido, except for one point: you suggested that she could talk to her gynecologist.

That comment brought to mind my own experience in talking to my physician about a sexual concern, and how she dismissed my concerns as silly and stupid. I felt embarrassed and minimized—even by a woman physician!

The more I talked to other women, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just sensitive topics like sex. Very often serious concerns I brought to physicians were ignored as piddly, unimportant, something I’d just have to live with. My pain was imaginary or just stress. It would go away on its own—I didn’t need a test. I began to realize that even in this modern era physicians were writing me off because I was a woman and, as some still seem to think, we women are just crazy hypochondriacs not worth listening to! 

Aunty, I have serious concerns about trusting doctors. What do you think?

Signed, Suspicious patient

Dear Suspicious,

Aunty isn’t surprised. Just yesterday a nurse practitioner confided to Aunty that her concerns were dismissed by doctors, even though she is a medical professional! She became so sick that she had to take almost six months off of work, after seeing a series of doctors, before one took her seriously. And her experience is hardly unusual. 

Old-timey doctors used to diagnose women with “hysteria” for everything from reading too many novels to being disagreeable. For a good laugh, google the reasons women were diagnosed with hysteria.  And while looking back at those diagnoses is good for a chuckle, the underlying misogyny persists in the medical field even today. Many women can tell you a personal experience of medical abuse or neglect, or a horror story of a woman they know who experienced it. (After you finish chuckling about hysteria diagnoses, prepare yourself for some horror by googling “the husband stitch.”

The medical professionals who perpetuate these abuses aren’t malicious. But misogyny and racism are rampant in the system from the textbooks in medical school to the way hospital and clinic policies are set up, just as misogyny and racism saturate some cultures. Also, providers are incentivized to move people through their appointments as quickly as possible, so they don’t always have the time or opportunity to think carefully about their sexist or racial assumptions. (Look up the Tuskegee Study, and you’ll have an explanation for why some Black people mistrust medical professionals.) 

So what can we do? We can spread awareness, as we are doing here. We can provide support to one another. And we can advocate for ourselves. 

A physician assistant once gave Aunty some solid advice for when a medical provider refuses testing, or tries to say that a problem is all in her head. Say, “I want it noted in my chart that I asked for this test and was denied.” Medical providers will not want to document that they denied treatment, so that sometimes greases the wheels. 

Above all, try not to give up in the face of medical roadblocks. There are amazing medical providers out there who can help you, and who are aware of the sexism and racism some face. They may be hard to find, so you might ask the women or people of color in your friend circle. 

And lest someone tells you this isn’t a spiritual issue, remember one of the Bible’s best recommendations: to do justice and love mercy. I can’t think of a better way to implement that than to advocate for just and fair medical treatment.

Aunt Sevvy

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