Women’s Healthcare Failures: Our Stories

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This International Women’s Day, I want to talk about a cause that is very close to my heart; women’s health. As someone who has a few of these health issues (PCOS and Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome), it’s something I’ve always felt particularly passionate about.

Unfortunately, when it comes to women’s health*, there is a clear lack of education. Not only a lack of education within society in general but, worryingly, amongst some health professionals, too.

Discovering I might have PCOS was a puzzle I pieced together over the course of a few years. Symptoms like weight gain (and massive struggles in losing weight), acne, excessive hair growth and extremely irregular and intermittent periods drove me to seek medical advice around a year ago.

The whole process made me realise that there does not seem to be a go-to system for diagnosing issues like PCOS. One Doctor I went to straight-up laughed off my concerns and blamed my symptoms on my ‘mental health’ (presumably just because it was in my medical record that I take antidepressants). I left that appointment in tears, and even left the GP surgery altogether because it had affected me that much, I knew I’d never be able to go back. Had I taken her word for it and not kept fighting (as I was very tempted to do) I would never have got to see a specialist. A specialist that, in a 10-minute appointment, confidently gave me the diagnosis I knew in my heart was true all along.

Unfortunately, this is a story I’ve heard multiple times from so many women. I posed the question on Twitter and Instagram yesterday, and was shocked at the overwhelming number of people who reached out to me with similar stories. Here are just a few of their experiences:

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“I had to obtain emergency contraception from a pharmacy. A group of female pharmacists all rolled their eyes at me and generally treated me like I was just being a hassle right from the start. When I got into the consultation room the pharmacist told me I needed to be more responsible and that I couldn’t come in ‘expecting to get the morning after pill every weekend’ (despite this being the first time I’d ever used it). The whole experience felt derogatory and shameful. After the pharmacist repeatedly telling me that she ‘didn’t want to’ and ‘probably wouldn’t’ give me the emergency contraception, I put my foot down and said I was going to leave and go to another pharmacy if she continued treating me in this way. It was only then she backed down and gave me it.”

“When I was at Uni I went to my GP because I had a pretty bad throat infection. It was really affecting me and I was constantly exhausted. My GP didn’t believe me when I told them how fatigued I was, and instead asked more than 3 times if I was having sex and if I could be pregnant. They insisted I did a pregnancy test despite me clearly stating I was on birth control. It felt as though because I was a young, female student, my symptoms were assumed to be due to pregnancy rather than a common illness.”

“A couple of years ago I noticed I had a few small lumps in my chest area, so I went to my (male) doctor. He was completely dismissive and told me it was ‘probably nothing’ and simply said to come back if anything else happened. I wasn’t happy with this response, so went to a female doctor for a second opinion, who actually took the time to check and find out what was wrong. Luckily it wasn’t anything too serious, but it made me so angry that I was dismissed without a second thought in the first instance.”

“3 years after I had the copper coil inserted, I started experiencing unusual bleeding and sharp stabbing pains in my uterus. On going to the clinic, I found out the coil had displaced and was beginning to expel, and had it removed and replaced. A few months down the line, I started having the same symptoms as before, but this time they were even more intense. I realised that the same thing was happening and was in a panic. I attended two clinics in Belfast and was turned away because the nurses couldn’t examine me, despite me asking beforehand if there was anyone who could! Finally, I went to another clinic and the Doctor was in a massive rush (despite me being the only woman there). She did not do a thorough examination and simply told me there was nothing wrong with the coil and that she didn’t believe me about the coil expelling previously. As if this wasn’t humiliating enough, she then suggested that I was in fact lying because I was just after another form of contraception. I cried the whole way home but luckily trusted my instincts that something was wrong. 4 weeks later, I finally had the coil removed. By this point, it was literally halfway out and my cervix was extremely irritated and inflamed. I had to go on antibiotics to minimise the risk of infection. I can’t help but think this all happened because of my age, and wonder if a 30 or 40 year old woman with children would have been treated in the same way.”

“I have been to multiple clinics and had clinicians try to force certain birth control methods on me, despite me specifically stating that I’ve tried them before and don’t want to try them again. I’ve also been insensitively scolded about my weight and judgementally questioned as to why I want to be on birth control, as if my choices are not valid or ‘respectable’. I’ve now had the copper coil for a year or so, but experienced some horrific abdominal pain. Two different doctors both simply prodded my stomach a bit, sent me on my way with antibiotics and told me to ‘wait and see’. I ultimately ended up in A&E because the pain was so severe and was treated rudely by a receptionist, which was awful considering I felt so guilty for being there, but I had already put myself through so much pain. This was literally my last resort – I had tried the non-emergency line which had not been helpful. I was eventually seen by a Doctor who did exactly the same thing as the previous two I had seen. When I was waiting to pick my medication up, the Doctor pulled me aside and decided to do an internal exam (finally!) however the results were inconclusive, so it was just brushed off as ‘settling pain’.”

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“I went to my GP 2 years ago with one symptom of PCOS. She asked me 3 questions before telling me I had the condition – no tests, no scans, no follow-up – I simply got a leaflet and was sent on my way. I was so confused and cried when I left the Doctor’s surgery. I had suddenly been given this news that I might be infertile and had no support. It felt as though the condition was so inconsequential to the Doctor that she couldn’t even be bothered to send me for tests. I felt so alone and deflated, and didn’t expect it from a female Doctor. To this day I haven’t gone back for more information or to ask for tests because I’m so scared of the same thing happening again. A few years previously to all of this, I had been to a different Doctor because I had really heavy and irregular periods and he simply told me I was ‘one of the unlucky ones’ and offered me no help.”

“I have endometriosis and have been misdiagnosed and dismissed by medical professionals more times than I can count. It took me 10 years (from the age of 11 to 21) to be diagnosed. It’s so frustrating that women in pain just aren’t taken seriously.”

“I went to the Doctor’s because I was experiencing pain during sex and having really irregular periods. I got sent to a gynaecologist and was understandably nervous – it was my first time and I didn’t know what to expect. Once I had got changed and was waiting, she came in with a student – I was super uncomfortable with this and nobody had asked me if I was ok with a student watching. The internal examination itself was rough and really uncomfortable physically, I wasn’t talked through anything and didn’t really know what was going to happen. Whilst I was getting dressed the gynaecologist started telling me that she hadn’t found anything. I was upset because I had no answers as to what was causing my symptoms, and all she sarcastically said was ‘well isn’t that what you wanted to hear?’ before going on to blame my issues on my weight (which just seemed like an easy scapegoat). She continued to get more and more defensive and short with me, until I eventually walked out and cried in my car on the way home.”

Of course, not all Doctors and health professionals are like this. I have been lucky enough to be treated by some incredible and hugely compassionate Doctors throughout my journey with PCOS and Chronic Pelvic Pain Syndrome. In fact, I’ve only had one notably ‘bad’ experience, but I consider myself to be one of the very lucky ones. As these women have demonstrated, there is still unfortunately a huge lack of understanding and compassion when it comes to women’s health, and we need to be vocal about this.

We need to be vocal about this for every woman who has ever cried or felt humiliated after an appointment with her GP, for every young girl who plucked up the courage to ask for contraception, only to be met with judgement. For every one of us going through daily pain and constantly being dismissed and treated like we’re being ‘hysterical’.

This International Women’s Day and forever, we need to speak up!

Please, if you have experienced something similar and feel comfortable talking about it, let me know in the comments. We’re all in this together and I believe that speaking out is an amazing force in raising awareness of this issue. Equally, if you aren’t ready to share your story but want to vent, my DMs are always open.

And please, if you are reading this and are dealing with one of the issues I’ve mentioned and feel worried about seeking help, please don’t. Remember, there are plenty of Doctors out there who are kind and compassionate and who will do their best to help you. And if you happen to come across one who isn’t, that is not your fault. Go back, get a second opinion and fight your corner. It’s hard to do, 100%, but it is worth it in the long run. Again, my DMs are open.

*When I say women’s health, of course I recognise that these issues will affect many non-binary and trans people also. I have referred to them as ‘women’s health’ issues because this is the group of people they generally affect, so it makes it easier for people to understand what sort of things I’m talking about.

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