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Why are women more likely to be misdiagnosed than men?

It's easier than ever for women to find a female doctor. Often, they think that another woman will take them and their medical issues more seriously than a male doctor. However, female patients are still more likely to be misdiagnosed or to not have their medical conditions recognized at all than male patients.

Studies have found that a key symptom of many conditions -- pain -- isn't taken as seriously when a woman is reporting it as when a man is. Doctors are more likely to think that it's in their head. They're also less likely to treat pain as aggressively in women as in men.

Several serious and all-too-common conditions are often misdiagnosed in women:

  • Autoimmune diseases, including lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Some 75 percent of people with autoimmune diseases are female. However, it can still take years to get a correct diagnosis
  • Heart disease and heart attacks: Women have a 50 percent greater chance of having a heart attack misdiagnosed as men.
  • Strokes: Women have a 30 percent greater chance of having a stroke misdiagnosed as men.

Sometimes, the result of failure to recognize and treat a patient who's suffered an event like a stroke or heart attack can be fatal.

While some doctors are guilty of simply not taking female patients as seriously as their male patients, these failures to diagnose serious conditions can't all be chalked up to misogyny. Women often experience different symptoms than men. Heart attacks in women too often aren't recognized (by the patient or the doctor) because the symptoms many times aren't the ones we traditionally associate with heart attacks -- in other words, the ones that men often experience.

Since most research is done on male subjects, doctors may not recognize symptoms more often experienced by women. As the head of one medical center says, "To this day, we are still teaching the next generation of providers unisex medicine."

All of us as patients have to be advocates for ourselves. While it can be a relief to have a doctor tell you there's nothing seriously wrong if you believe there is, speak up. Doctors can't reasonably be expected to make accurate, quick diagnoses in every instance. However, if you or a loved one has suffered harm because of a misdiagnosis or a missed diagnosis, it's wise to find out what your legal options are.

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