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What International Women's Day Has to Do With Health Care

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

International Women's Day is the perfect time to look at inequity in health care

When you think of International Women's Day, health and wellness may not be the first topic that comes to mind, but in reality, there's a strong connection. The first International Women's Day had its roots in the labor movement and was organized by women primarily working as garment workers. While they were rallying for improved working conditions, including improved hours and pay, there were also other factors in play: health and safety.

Early 20th-century garment factories (or any factories for that matter) were not known for their strict health and safety standards in the workplace, let alone how the long hours and minuscule pay was affecting the workers' well-being during off-hours. Now, more than 100 years later, we can and should use IWD to highlight other concerns regarding women's access to health care.

More: What Is International Women's Day & Why Do We Celebrate It on March 8?

Medicine is not one-size-fits-all

Medical and health care technologies are advancing at such a rapid pace that sometimes it's hard remember how these breakthroughs happen. In most cases, we gain medical knowledge and know-how through research: organized clinical trials later published in peer-reviewed medical journals. While that's great in theory, it could be problematic in practice if different groups — like women — are excluded from the research.

Historically, in clinical research involving conditions that affect both men and women, most of the subjects were men. This means that the findings were then generalized and applied to women. But given size, hormonal and physiological differences in various bodies, this doesn't exactly work. Signs and symptoms of conditions may be different between men and women, and treatment — especially dosage of medications — isn't typically the same for everyone.

The most obvious example of this is heart disease. For years, we were told that the signs of a heart attack involve clutching an arm and your chest and collapsing on the ground. While that is true in some cases for men, heart conditions present in completely different ways in women, centered more on extreme fatigue and what feels like indigestion. We know that now because of what doctors have witnessed in clinical practice as well as more recent research. One of the many reasons these misconceptions about heart disease in women lasted so long was because they were excluded from much of the early clinical trials.

More: Knowing the Signs of Cardiac Arrest & a Heart Attack in Women Could Save a Life

Then, on top of this, women's pain is taken less seriously than men's. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that even though women reported more severe levels of pain at more frequent rates than men, their pain was treated less aggressively. The study hypothesizes that because women have more effective coping mechanisms for dealing with pain, it may contribute to a general perception that they can put up with more pain and in turn don't require the same level of treatment. On top of that, the researchers found that often, women's pain is also overlooked because doctors dismiss it as being "emotional" and not worthy of the same care as men's pain.

So what's the solution? Like many deeply ingrained problems with health care culture, there is no quick fix. But a good first step is paying attention and getting others to do the same. Greater awareness of this is needed in order for more people — doctors and patients — to start taking women's pain more seriously, and International Women's Day is a great time to start making noise.

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