When I was in my 20s I got sick, I mean really sick. I was seeing more doctors then my 70- something year old Granny. At this point in my life I had worked as a health care aide for about six years, so I thought I knew how the medical system worked. However, my time as a health care aide did not prepare me for the inequality that I would face as a female patient.
By design our health care systems gives doctors (and to a lesser extent nurses) all the power in the delivery of healthcare. It is truly amazing the power that doctors hold over someone else’s health. Patients really have little say in how the medical system treats us and/or our bodies. Patients are taught from an early age not to question doctors or nurses and not to second guess the quality of our care. In my experience, many doctors see their patients as a commodity that they need to treat as fast as possible in order to make the most money from the health care system.
When I got first sick, I truly believed that doctors were there to help me. However I quickly learned that this was not the case. I was often treated like I was dumb, and when I pointed out how bad my lab results were I would be told that it really did not mean anything. If continued to push for the results, I was told that my medical problems were caused by stress and that I should see a therapist. I had little power in these appointments and I often left the appointment thinking maybe I was crazy.
I remember one time leaving an appointment and going to a friend’s house crying because I felt so belittled by the latest doctor. I was telling her and her mom what happen and they told me that this is what happens in our medical system. My friend said all women are treated like this, and her sister who has MS, was told she was crazy on multiple occasions by multiple doctors before she was diagnosed correctly. After this I started asking other women about their health care experiences and many of them had similar stories: many women had been labeled crazy by a doctor. This is when I truly started to understand that women are treated differently than men in our health care system. I also learned that if you added any other labels in front of woman such as young, poor, immigrant, and/or minority your health care experience was often worse than my bad experience.
When I finally was given my official diagnosis, it was not the victory I thought it would be. It was just another way to show me that I was powerless and that women’s health in general was not a priority in our health care system. My diagnosis was not given in person or over the phone, it was sent to me in a letter, where the doctor wrote that my tumour was of no concern; except it was of concern, this little tumour was affecting my life, my overall health and it was affecting my marriage.
I called to make an appointment with the doctor, to discuss this matter and I was told she did not want to talk about it and when I asked if I could get a second opinion, I was told,” no and that the matter was closed.” After hearing this I knew I need to find a doctor that cared about me and my health. I was lucky my husband’s job allowed us to move and I was able to start over in another health care system in another province.
The new health care system still had the same power dynamics at play, but this time I was older and wiser and I knew how the system worked. I had also learned how to work the system. I also made sure I found a family doctor that was female and who understood how my tumour was impacting my life, health and marriage. I remember explaining to her at my first appointment that I was not crazy, that I was sick because of this little tumour that was of no concern. I am not sure if it was because she was female, or if it was because she was knew to the Canadian health care system, but I found a doctor that care for me and would spend her own time looking for the best specialist to take care of me. With my family doctor’s help, I finally was able to receive the medical care and surgery that I needed.
Today I run a support group, and one of the things that many of the women tell me is that they were not prepared for was how they are treated by doctor, nurses or the medical system in general. Many of the women tell me that they feel like second class citizens in our universal health care system and that every test, appointment, procedures was/is a fight to get.