Dismissed Symptoms: When Your Doctor Isn’t Listening

If you think it’s all in your head that your doctor isn’t listening to you when you ask for help with symptoms and health issues, it’s not. Three years ago, TODAY did a study about how women felt doctors didn’t truly hear them or listen to them in office visits and emergency rooms.

The survey’s findings included many personal stories from women who had had their serious conditions dismissed by doctors, but also some shocking statistics. Twenty percent of women feel as though they’ve had a health care provider dismiss or ignore their symptoms, and doctors are more likely to tell women their symptoms—including pain—are psychosomatic and the result of stress or hormones rather than an underlying health issue. Another study conducted by Yale cardiology found that if women thought they were having a heart attack, they would hesitate to seek care out of concern doctors would think of them as hypochondriacs.

Based on the survey’s findings, doctors dismissing women and their health concerns is the result of gender bias that has a long history in medicine. In fact, the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for uterus, and the diagnosis of hysteria—only in women—was applied in any case where a woman showed what doctors considered “inappropriate” emotions like “anxiety, anger, and even sexual desire.” Problematically, that bias persists, mainly due to the exclusion of women from medical studies, including drug trials (women were not included in drug trials until the early 90s), but also due to lack of education about the differences between male and female bodies. For a time, women’s health care was referred to as “bikini medicine” because they assumed everything about men and women was the same, except for reproductive organs.

Other common “diagnoses” for women with uncommon symptoms like those of vaginismus is that they’re imagining everything, or their symptoms are simply a result of stress. The “treatment” plan in these cases, then, is to “want to get better,” or stop “overthinking it” and “relax.” But when a woman has lived with vaginismus for so long, in some cases longer than 11 years, they know for certain they don’t need to sort themselves out; they need a doctor to listen to them and most importantly, understand vaginismus and treatment options like Milli.

Despite the extensive history of doctors dismissing women, though, there is good news, and reason to be optimistic about the future for women seeking care. The Liaison Committee on Medical Education, backed by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, has been recommending medical students learn how to see and properly address both biases—including gender—in themselves, other students and doctors, and in the health care process as a whole. Journals and medical colleges also now have the Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelines, developed and recommended by the European Association of Science Editors in 2016. With so many health organizations—and women—advocating for a shift toward understanding the uniqueness of the female body, there is hope for women no longer having their symptoms dismissed.

Heather Wheat

Heather Wheat

Three Words to Describe Heather: Wordsmith, teacher, learner

Expertise: Writing, teaching, editing, research

Education: BA in English and Secondary Education from Metropolitan State University Denver, MA in English from Arizona State University

Heather is a blog writer at Materna, a freelance copywriter and editor, and a high school Instructional Coach in Colorado.

Heather earned her bachelor’s degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she majored in English and minored in Secondary Education, graduating with highest honors. She continued her formal education at Arizona State University, earning a master’s degree in English. She began her teaching career in 2007 and recently transitioned out of the classroom into a teacher leadership role. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and traveling.

This has been reviewed by Edward Evanstash, M.D., OB-GYN and Chief Medical Advisor for Materna Medical, and Kathy Cassidy, Director of Education for Materna Medical and a Certified Nurse Midwife and a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner.