Lea says that doctors aren’t intentionally unsympathetic to women’s ailments. “This bias is systemic and subconscious. I don't think that anything is being neglected or not done out of malice or sexism,” Lea says.
“It's mainly that the norm, so far, has been to conduct medical research focused on men and then translate it to women. It doesn't really enter people's heads that there might be a difference in women’s physiology.”
This oversight might encourage some doctors to overlook medical issues that only relate to women, Lea says, adding that when she was studying medicine in the United Kingdom, people simply weren’t aware this could be a problem.
“There was little understanding that a man and a woman might present differently with the same disease and that they might have different test results,” Lea says. “It is just how people are taught, and it won’t change until somebody challenges that.”
For her PhD research, Lea wrote an academic paper called “”, where she interviewed women with chronic conditions who felt their pain had been underacknowledged by their doctors. “All of the women use the word ‘dismissed,’” Lea says.
Lea says her research participants wanted to share their experiences because they were hoping that telling their stories could help bring about positive change in the medical profession.
One of the consequences of women feeling dismissed by medical doctors, Lea says, was that some would look for treatments in the alternative medicine sector, where they felt that someone was listening to them and offering to help.
Lea does not say that alternative medicines are superior to medical doctors, but she says that the way these practitioners interact with patients is different. “The difference in the culture and how the women will be listened to is the key thing,” she says.
This is also why Lea recommended in her that medical doctors should receive mandatory empathy training, so they are more sensitive to people presenting with symptoms that do not have a medical explanation yet.
After working as a doctor in the United Kingdom and Australia for many years, there are a number of positive changes that Lea would like to see in the health system in the near future to improve patient experiences and outcomes.
“The obvious one that jumps out is I'd like to see the gap closed. I would like to see equity and see the end of systemic sexism and racism in the health service,” Lea says. “I also support some kind of gendered medicine, where women and their ailments aren't dismissed.
“It should be acknowledged that there's not enough known about women's bodies, and that there may be nuances in test results that need interpretation and critical thinking.”
Lea also says it is important that hospitals become more multidisciplinary in their approach to treatments. “The human body is not like the motor of a car. Nobody is just a heart or lungs in isolation,” Lea says. “Pelvic pain might not simply be a matter for a gynaecologist. It might also be caused by the bowel or the bladder, for instance, and that requires other specialist knowledge.
“We need the medical system to understand health and wellbeing within the whole person. We can join teams together and manage particularly complex patients as a unit rather than as individual systems.”