People are interesting. That may be the blandest statement I’ve ever made on this blog. I thought about starting with “people are unbelievable,” but that doesn’t quite capture the sentiment I’m trying to express. They say and do things that make me shake my head – or bang it against the wall – but I expect that of my fellow humans*. So it’s totally believable. But I still find the way people think and express themselves fascinating, especially when it comes to how they approach their health.
Someone must have recently posted my very first piece, It’s Not Your Thyroid, to Facebook. For several days my site traffic shot up dramatically, with a thousand people or more each day reading that piece. One commenter left a link to a Huffington Post article called Medicine Has A Sexism Problem, And It’s Making Women Sicker. In the nuanced discussion that follo – oh, wait, that didn’t happen. The entire comment was simply that link. Though there was no accompanying explanatory statement, I’m a decent surmiser. At one end of the possibility spectrum, the commenter could be implying if a male physician declines to validate a female patient’s incorrect belief, it’s sexism. At the other end of the spectrum, I suppose she could simply be highlighting a topic she felt was germane to the discussion.
I realize I’m about to embark on a drive down a road besieged with potholes and IEDs (improvised explosive devices, not to be confused with IUDs), but I typically roll in a reinforced Humvee, so let’s get it on. First, the Huff Post sexism article makes some good points. The author also makes some assertions I found overstated, but I’m not interested in critiquing her post here. Overall, I thought her article was thought-provoking and added something useful to the conversation about women’s health and how the medical system doesn’t always do a great job addressing it.
My beef obviously isn’t with the author – it’s with anyone who attributes an Endocrinologist’s opinion they don’t want to hear to sexism. Cultivating such knee-jerk dismissal of doctors’ advice does women a great disservice. It reinforces the garbage that litters thyroid blogs and forums – the nonsense that claims all persistent symptoms must be due to the thyroid problem that your doctor either refuses to diagnose or refuses to treat appropriately.
The reason I feel the need to loudly counter the sexism argument is because it has the potential to be extraordinarily effective – even when it doesn’t have merit. It’s one thing to debate someone who endorses the naturopathic/magical approach to thyroid care; it’s another animal entirely to confront someone who goes nuclear with the highly-charged claim of “sexism.” In today’s sociopolitical climate, it is not ok to be a sexist. Of course, it has never been ok to be a sexist, but society’s tolerance for sexism has rightly plummeted. So when sexism is invoked, it’s the equivalent of a mic-drop. We typically have an immediate visceral reaction. At that point, we are so primed to hate the accused and everything for which he stands, that any reasonable discourse becomes impossible.
Can we pause for a moment and do a quick reality check? There are implicit biases that infect everyone in a society that is, at its core, patriarchal and racist. In a sexist and racist society, it’s unavoidable that people – even doctors – will be influenced by these biases and make problematic decisions because of them. The best way to mitigate the influence of our ingrained biases is to be aware of them.
So, is there sexism in medicine? Yes. Do women disproportionately get labeled as hysterical? Yes. Does the medical profession need to do a better job addressing women’s health? Yes. If the application of an evidence-based approach to thyroid care fails to identify the thyroid as the cause of a woman’s symptoms, should the doctor’s conclusions be dismissed because he’s the product of a sexist society? I think you know my answer to that. My point is that we need to wield our most powerful weapons responsibly, and that includes keeping the argument about what constitutes a thyroid problem honest.
*Marcus Aurelius, one of the most successful leaders in the history of the world, had the following to say:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.
It’s time to let me know your thoughts. I know that many of you have had poor interactions with doctors; do you think that sexism is part of the problem? If you are a doctor, think hard about this one: can you remember an instance in which your approach may have been colored by sexism? Comment below!
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