Gender Matters in Health
Last reviewed on October 23, 2012
By Robert H. Shmerling, M.D.
Just the other day, I saw a newspaper ad urging women to get their care at a nearby women's health clinic.
That got me wondering about the growing field of gender-based medical care.
Perhaps you've seen similar ads or doctors touting their expertise in "men's issues." Health care professionals in these settings may have bedside manners or practice styles that appeal more to one gender than the other. For example, a female physician may be able to sympathize with a patient's menopausal symptoms if she, the doctor, has gone through menopause herself, while a male physician does not have that experience to draw on.
But how does the actual medical care provided in gender-based practices differ from that provided by "regular" doctors?
You won't get an argument from me about the profound differences between men and women. The obvious anatomic differences translate into different health needs.
But for the parts of the body that men and women share, how are health issues different?
Heart and blood vessel disease is probably the best example of an important medical condition where gender matters, despite similar anatomy.
Angina, for example, is a serious condition that occurs when too little blood flows to the heart through arteries. The classic symptom is chest pain or pressure when you exert yourself that travels to the left arm, jaw or neck, and stops when you rest. You may also have nausea or severe sweating.
Studies show that men are much more likely than women to have these typical symptoms. Women, meanwhile, tend to have the classic chest pain less often than men. They are more likely to have shortness of breath, abdominal pain and fatigue. Doctors may not consider that these less typical symptoms are due to a heart problem.
In addition, confusing or misleading test results for heart disease are more common for women.
Here are other examples of how men and women respond differently to a disease or its treatment.
It's important to mention that differences in how men and women respond to illness or medications could be greater than we think. That's because, until recently, large research studies tended to include more men than women. That's changing, but it's important to consider the research sources of any knowledge about health and disease. Given gender-based differences mentioned above, a study of medications for angina or a study assessing pain could reach different conclusions if it includes only men or only women.
Some of the differences in health between the genders are not related so much to differences in the ways diseases affect them, but rather from differences in how men and women behave.
For example, men tend to smoke and drink more than women, so health problems related to these habits are often more common in men. And it's well-documented that men tend to ignore symptoms and delay getting medical care.
One 2006 study makes this point dramatically. Researchers found that men who became sick or got hurt while watching a major sporting event, such as the Super Bowl, tended to wait to get medical attention. The effect was so pronounced that 30% fewer men came to emergency rooms during major televised sporting events and 40% more came in for medical care soon after the game ended.
There are many conditions that are more common in one gender than the other. Often, we don't know why. For example:
Urinary tract infections (UTIs), on the other hand, are much more common in women because of anatomy. Compared to men, bacteria have a much easier time reaching the bladder and causing an infection. When men have a UTI, it's usually due to some other problem such as an enlarged prostate (which blocks urine flow) or recent urinary surgery.
Whether we know the reason for these differences or not, people and their doctors may dismiss the possibility of a disease when it occurs in the gender that gets it less often.
Despite the differences, it seems to me that the health needs of men and women are much more alike than different. In my view, the notions that a woman can only get good care by seeing a specialist in women's health and that a man should only see a doctor who limits his practice to male patients are often more about marketing than improving health.
In fact, differences in the practice styles of individual male and female doctors are probably more important to health outcomes and patient satisfaction than differences in the medical needs of their male and female patients.
Rather than focusing on different health needs among men and women, I think it's more important to find a responsive doctor you trust and you can talk to easily. That's the challenge for each person, regardless of their gender or their doctor's.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.