The power of affirmation in healthcare experiences
“So, what does Google tell you you have?”
After waiting for hours in the emergency room, dizzy, numb and tingling with a burning chest pain, that was how my doctor greeted me.
My pain and fear were approached with snarkiness, unprofessionalism and blatant rudeness by the doctor. I was angry, but I knew how to respond: “Actually, I don’t Google my symptoms, because I trust my healthcare professionals.”
As our interaction continued, the doctor insisted that what I was experiencing were symptoms of anxiety. When I told the doctor that I was not experiencing a period of anxiety, she responded, “that you know of.” I knew then that I would leave the hospital untreated.
Research has shown that there is what we can call a “gender gap” in the healthcare system. When we talk about a gender gap in healthcare, we are referring to inequalities that women experience in treatment. One study says “women are more likely than men to be undertreated or inappropriately diagnosed and treated for their pain.”
A BBC article states that “women are more likely to receive anti-anxiety medications than men when they come to a hospital with pain–and are more often written off as psychiatric patients.”
With these facts in mind, a picture begins to be painted of a healthcare system in which structural sexism is pervasive. It is important also to recognize that cissexism, racism, discrimination based on socioeconomic status and more can impact one’s healthcare experience.
When I left the hospital that night, I was hopeless. I was confused about my condition and turned to the Internet only to find dozens of stories like mine. There is a concerning pattern of women going to the hospital with concerning symptoms only to be sent home with a false psychiatric diagnosis or no diagnosis at all.
When I left the hospital, I left with no diagnosis. The nurse practitioner explained to me that nothing I was experiencing was “emergent,” so I was being discharged with the advice to reach out to a primary care doctor.
My numbness wasn’t emergent? Passing out wasn’t emergent? Being so dizzy I was stumbling wasn’t emergent? My definition of an emergency apparently differs from that of the medical world, which is all too focused on the bottom dollar, rotating through patients as quickly as possible.
I made a follow-up appointment at the Habif Health and Wellness Center, and I assumed my experience would continue as negatively as it had started.
But instead I met a doctor who actually listened to me. She took my pain and symptoms seriously and was clearly committed to finding the cause. I left the appointment stumbling–a fun symptom–but smiling.
When healthcare providers are compassionate and affirming toward their patients, they build the trust necessary to create a physician-patient relationship that leads to diagnosis and treatment.
I am still on the road toward a diagnosis, but I am happy to say that I trust my physician. To all the women and marginalized folks out there who have had their experiences invalidated by a healthcare professional: Your pain is real. Your symptoms are real. Don’t give up until you get an answer.