The Fight for Equal Healthcare Rights
In light of the #MeToo movement, there have been more discussions surrounding how women are perceived and treated because of preconceived notions. What is most surprising is the number of stereotypes from decades past that has persisted into the modern world. One such area that these stereotypes have remained is the healthcare space. Women struggle to be treated equally as patients in many sectors of the healthcare industry, and sometimes, these slights can prove dangerous or even fatal. Here are just a few examples to paint a better picture of some of the hurdles that women deal with in the healthcare system.
The female sterilization device Essure was approved in 2002 and later acquired by Bayer AG. Originally marketed as an easy, permanent form of contraception, Essure quickly grew in popularity. Using a non-surgical implantation procedure, the device manufacturer boasted a short recovery time following the procedure. The device also appealed to many women and healthcare professionals because it does not use hormones.
Unfortunately, for thousands of women promised a short recovery time, the Essure device caused years of pain, serious side-effects, and additional surgeries. Between 2002 and 2017, nearly 27,000 women with Essure reported adverse events to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These complaints ranged from device migration and chronic pain to unwanted or unintended pregnancies. In 2016, the FDA placed a boxed warning on the labeling, and in 2018, the agency restricted sales to ensure that healthcare providers implementing the device would review the risks thoroughly with all patients. However, despite the high number of adverse events reported, the device remained on the U.S. market until Bayer removed it at the end of 2018.
While the device is no longer available in 2019, women are still suffering the consequences, and many of these women are fighting back. Bayer is currently facing tens of thousands of lawsuits all across the country filed by women who sustained injuries because of the device. At this time, no settlements or verdicts have been announced.
Did you know that the United States has one of the worst maternal mortality rates out of all developed countries? Roughly 700 women die each year from pregnancy-related causes, and many of these women die from complications that could be easily treated. Preeclampsia, for example, is a high blood pressure condition that is one of the “leading preventable causes of death during childbirth in the U.S.” As this USA Today article reports, while preeclampsia is highly treatable, many new mothers suffer the consequences of the disorder when their symptoms are overlooked or when hospital staff doesn’t follow proper safety procedures. In a developed country where life-saving research and technology is being developed regularly, we should not be losing new mothers to preventable complications of childbirth.
There is, however, one positive update to this widespread issue affecting new mothers. In December 2018, the Preventing Maternal Deaths Act was signed into law. This piece of legislature funds state-led committees to investigate maternal deaths across the country with the hopes of finding vital preventative solutions.
The Preventing Maternal Deaths Act is not the only major piece of legislation passed in recent decades to expand women’s rights and protections in the healthcare industry. In 1993, Congress passed the National Institute of Health Revitalization Act to establish more inclusive guidelines for clinical research and trials. This act was put in place to remedy a long history of excluding women and different minorities from clinical research.
Men have been preferred by researchers as test subjects for decades. For one, men experience fewer hormonal fluctuations than women; past researchers felt that frequent changes in hormone levels could disrupt results. Without studying the female perspective, hormone changes and all, the results researchers gleamed only told half the story. Just imagine a drug trial underrepresenting women because of her natural hormone cycle. Once the drug is approved, its effects on women won’t truly be understood. The most significant example of this is the drug Ambien. In 2013, the FDA had to cut the recommended dose of Ambien in half for women specifically because they metabolize the drug differently and had adverse reactions to the drug.
Additionally, researchers have worried about female patients being pregnant or getting pregnant during the trial and the safety of the child. For these two main reasons, women have been excluded from important health studies, drug trials, and potentially life-saving treatments over the course of decades. A jarring example of this blatant underrepresentation is the 1986 Rockefeller University study analyzing the relationship between obesity, estrogen, and breast and uterine cancer in women, using only male test subjects. Though late to the game, it’s easy to see why Congress finally intervened in the early nineties.
Women prove time and time again that they deserve an equal footing with men. In the workplace, and in the home, women can do it all. But, it’s time that the healthcare system supports the efforts of women. Women need a healthcare system that works with them, not against them. Progress has been made in recent decades, but these problems still exist. To give women a voice and equal consideration with men, women need to be given greater priority in the healthcare system. With awareness, legislature, and legal action, equality is achievable.