What happens when doctors don’t listen to young women

Growing up, I went through bouts of being at peak health and bouts of being terribly ill, so I saw a lot of doctors between the ages of 12 and 17—most of them men. After spending years in several doctors’ offices, I realized something: Doctors rarely listened to me. While, at first, I simply found this annoying, I soon understood that I’d uncovered something extremely dangerous about our society.

I suffer from diagnosed polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). I’ve probably suffered from it for a lot longer than I even know, but doctors dismissed my symptoms. My diagnosis journey began in twelfth grade when I first started going online and researching why my period was still so irregular after four years and why I was growing facial hair. It was a nightmare for 17-year-old me, but once I read about PCOS and learned that it was a real problem faced by literally millions of women, I took solace in the fact that I would be able to easily get help for it.

Or so I thought.

My first trip to the doctor to discuss my potential PCOS resulted in him asking me about my relationship with my father. Then, the only prescription he provided me was for an “attitude adjustment.” He flat-out suggested that I was faking it, and that I had imagined my symptoms. I was shocked. How could a doctor throw out my concerns so carelessly? When I got home and told my older sister what happened, she advised that I take my mother with me to my next appointment. As my sister explained it, doctors don’t take young women seriously.

Until that moment, I didn’t know that she was painfully correct: Medical research and health care suffers from a gender bias, so most women’s health issues are barely understood, if they are even researched at all. Specifically for PCOS, women often have to visit three different doctors over a two-year period before they finally receive a diagnosis.

I didn’t want to go through the same dismissive experience again. So instead, I just stopped looking for doctors.

For the next two months, I endured the most extreme pain I have ever felt. My periods were still highly irregular and incredibly painful. They lasted for up to three weeks at a time, leaving me in agony every single day during what was also the most tense time of my school career. As I was suffering such excruciating pain, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that a doctor had written it all off as an “attitude problem.” I was so disappointed in the health care system. I was so upset with myself for being a girl that I used to cry about existing. It might sound melodramatic, but I figured that if I were a boy, a doctor would have listened to me.

I read more and more about PCOS—which still hadn’t been formally diagnosed—and began to fear for my fertility, all at the age of 17.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I took a leap of faith and tried to find a new doctor. I decided I couldn’t keep suffering the way that I had been; my pain needed to be taken seriously. My mom helped me find a new female doctor, and I told her everything. She apologized for the lack of care I’d received in the past, and for the first time, I felt listened to in a doctor’s office. That meeting ended with my new doctor prescribing birth control. Now, I have a regular-enough cycle that I can manage without pain.

For me, the biggest problem here isn’t necessarily that a doctor dismissed me—it’s why he did.

He, like many other doctors, viewed me as an attitude-ridden teenage girl who knew nothing of “real world problems.” He viewed me as superficial and left me in pain. And my experience is not a unique one-off: It happens to countless women, and it happened to many of my friends during high school. It needs to stop.

Instead of dismissing girls as naive or uninformed, let’s listen to them when they disclose their pain. Listen to young women because their lives are at stake. Listen to young women so they get the help they need and deserve.

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