Is there a problem with male doctors in women’s health services?

Is there a problem with male doctors in women’s health services?

My past experiences with male doctors in women’s health

I’m about to share a piece I wrote nearly a year ago and didn’t dare post. I feared (and still feared) the backlash. I don’t want to write a misandrist blog post. But I posted about mansplaining on Facebook recently and most of the comments made were from women who were mansplained by their doctors in a way that was detrimental to their/their children’s health. I think its a real issue that goes further than my experiences, but we will see. I will share and you can tell me what you think. This is both personal and emotional so bear with me…

There has been a lot in the press lately about how women aren’t listened to by doctors, that they need to see doctors multiple times because they aren’t taken seriously. And don’t get me started about how women are habitually not listened to or coerced during pregnancy and birth. In recent years the term ‘gender pain gap’ has been coined to refer to this phenomenon. But does it happen more when male doctors treat women specifically about ‘women’s issues’? Or is it just a problem across the board, regardless of the gender of the practitioner or the specialism?

I’ve had an experience recently that really upset me. It’s not the first time a male consultant has treated me appallingly in women’s services. It is the first time since I started blogging though so bear with me, I’m going to rant and there will be swearing.

Experience one, breast clinic

This particular male consultant actually began ‘excusing’ his behaviour by saying (verbatim) ‘I’m just your typical older male consultant’ and by gosh he was!! You know when you go to see a doctor and they don’t listen to you and constantly talk over the top of you. I’m not sure if that happens a lot to other people seeking medical advice but it happens a lot to me, it’s nearly always men and was the experience I had today at the breast clinic.

I have been experiencing blocked ducts and mastitis very frequently recently, including a terrible bout when I was on holiday in Spain (that cost me a fortune and a trip to the Marbella A&E). After the last bout I noticed some orange peel type dimpling and skin thickening. This concerned me as I know these are symptoms of inflammatory breast cancer and that can be often mistaken for mastitis. I saw my GP and she could see the area I was talking about and referred me to the local breast clinic.

I was seen by a male consultant, a breast surgeon who made me feel embarrassed and ashamed for wasting his time. When I went in the first thing he said when I was adjusting the paper on the bed that I had knocked off was ‘leave it alone, you women always have to fiddle on with stuff, you think you are at home, wanting to tidy up’. My hackles immediately went up and I responded ‘yes, because women just love to clean and tidy don’t we’. I appreciate he was trying to make a joke but you only need to read my recent post on feminism to see why I no longer tolerate sexist jokes merely to be polite.

Then he chastised me for being too modest with my gown and told me to ‘just get it off’. Which is a horrible thing when you are naked from the waist up and feeling exposed and vulnerable in front of two strangers. I wonder how may times he has been in such a position in his life? He didn’t tell me where to put my arms or how to position myself but then kept acting like I was being awkward and he kept brusquely shoving me into positions. I’m pleased I’m not a sexual assault survivor because I’m sure his treatment of me would have been a trigger if that had been the case.

Are women listened to enough by the medical profession?

Then I couldn’t tell him my story because he kept cutting me off and trying to incorrectly summarise for me. I never got to mention my inflammatory breast cancer concerns because of this. He kept saying ‘so you are breastfeeding and just had a bit of inflammation, that’s to be expected’.

He felt my breasts (roughly, it was uncomfortable for a breastfeeder). The consultant was preoccupied with it being a breastfeeding issue and therefore non of his concern.

He kept saying ‘just stop breastfeeding, I’m a surgeon, I’m very pragmatic’. I said well surely as a surgeon you should know that the longer I nurse, the less likely I am to see you again for breast cancer surgery. He responded that I had ‘done my time’ and I was being a (again, verbatim) ‘fundamentalist about breastfeeding’ because I had breastfed so long. My baby was 15 months old at the time, just over half the minimum length of time the World Health Organisation recommends for breastfeeding. This was a breast clinic. FFS.

He also had zero concerns about how frequent my blocked ducts and mastitis were. He said it was to be expected nursing for 15 months (not true) and I should expect it every week. It’s totally normal and if I want it to stop then I have to stop nursing. I know this is bull shit. Utter bull shit. It’s not normal. My friends don’t have this issue. I didn’t have this issue as much with my son. There have been periods where it hasn’t been this bad even with my daughter. I know my life doesn’t have to be a misery nursing. (I’m now a year on from this point and fortunately I’m out of the awful cycle I was in and don’t get them anywhere near as frequently – so clearly time has nothing to do with it.)

Anyone who knows me, knows that for the past year I have constantly had painful lumps and fevers, often on antibiotics, often struggling to move my arms for pain and look after my children. As per usual, when you have problems with your breasts when breastfeeding there is little support in England. I contacted an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, she recommended the breast clinic I went to as the best in the area. Really?! Is this the best we can offer women, to be mocked.

I’m just sick to the back teeth male doctors in the system treating women like shit! Why?! Is it a lack of understanding of how it feels to be in the position in front of them? Is it the prominent position in a patriarchal society that supports and elevates their privileged status?

Is there a problem with male doctors in women's health?

After the doctor had finished making me feel as small as a door mouse the nurse then decided she would have a go. She told me, ‘the surgeon just doesn’t deal with breastfeeding issues, you shouldn’t really be here, this is for breast cancer issues (what I’d actually gone for). You should see your GP or Health Visitor or Family Planning (does Family Planning even exist anymore?!).

I’ve seen those. They couldn’t help, they referred me to you. I came to a breast clinic, not a breast cancer clinic. Where the fuck am I supposed to go. Is there a special place for breastfeeders with cancer scares?! Please send me there already.

They told me I could have an ultrasound and sent me back to wait. I recounted the story to my partner and cried in frustration and embarrassment in the re-telling. I’m a strong woman, I don’t back down from an argument, I’m very extroverted and pretty assertive. If that was my experience then what about the women who aren’t as confident?! How many women are we letting down?

Why do male doctors think it’s ok to treat us like this? How did this become the norm? When women are in gowns, half naked, feeling scared and vulnerable, what does it cost them to try and treat us with a little dignity and respect?

And yes. I know it’s not every male doctor in the NHS (not all men much). I’m not saying all male doctors are terrible and shouldn’t work in women’s health. Some are great – like the gynae who did some surgery on me after I had Lena, he was rad. Some women doctors are worse blah blah blah but what I’m telling you is that during my two pregnancies and subsequent interactions with the NHS for ‘women’s issues’, this has been my experience most of the times I’ve seen a male consultant. Have I been unlucky or is it a wider issue?

Experience two, pregnancy

Another, example I could give you would be the male consultant who literally shouted at me (gesticulating angrily) when I was in hospital during my pregnancy with Lena. He shouted ‘you need to care more about the baby in your stomach than your baby at home’. I’m still furious about that one.

Experience three, pregnancy

Another example still would be the time I wanted a home birth after a caesarean. A male consultant lectured me with incorrect information and out of date statistics and attempted to coerce me into giving birth in the hospital against my wishes. I was assertive and stood my ground and had a beautiful healing home birth.

I don’t want to unfairly malign male consultants in women’s health.  Yet the inherent issues in a patriarchal society where women have less power and are being shamed and coerced when in vulnerable conditions (either physically embarrassed or emotionally/hormonally vulnerable such as pregnancy/postpartum) need to be addressed. Of course, the best male doctors will be aware of the additional complexities that treating a woman about intimate private women’s health issues presents and they will be approach that with sensitivity and tact. But it shouldn’t be a lottery to receive good treatment.

Is there a problem with male doctors in women's health?

What can we do about it?

Firstly, don’t let it slide. If you feel able, directly address your issues to the doctor. You can complain to the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) who will follow up on the issue for you and push for improvements. If we don’t complain, things can’t improve. You can also write a letter to your hospital. Personally, I would address a letter straight to the hospital Chief Executive. You can copy in or write separately to your local councillors or MPs to raise awareness of issues so they can join you in striving for improvement. Whatever you do, do it straight away and don’t do nothing. Its so easy to do nothing because the system is exhausting but we owe it to ourselves, our sisters, mothers and daughters to fight for change.

I’ve spoken to so many women over the years who were treated poorly during or after labour. They complain about it for years – potentially the rest of their lives. We are so busy in that postpartum phase recovering and caring for our new infants that we don’t complain. Its no wonder so many women have poor experiences. I personally vow to always complain and push for the improvements of women’s services going forward, do you?

I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments. Have you ever had a similar experiences to what I’ve described? Or have I just been really unlucky and its been a coincidence that most my experiences with male doctors in women’s health have been bad ones? Are you a male doctor working in women’s services? How do you manage these issues. Are they addressed in your training? Do you witness this behaviour with your colleagues? What can we as female patients be doing to change things for the better?

Is there a problem with male doctors in women's health services?

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34 Comments

  1. Liz
    March 30, 2017 / 09:41

    I completely agree with your point about complaining to make changes for the better. So many women go through shit and hell and back again and suffer and don’t complain because they put it on themselves or they’ve been through it too much that complaining is too difficult. They make it difficult. I’ve had an unsatisfactory response to a complaint which I very nearly left (which would have eaten away at me) but my partner stepped up. We’re not dropping it until they do the simple thing we’re asking for, remind staff about informed consent and a person’s autonomy, choice about their own body. I’ve rarely come across men in women’s health care, it’s been awkward when I have, but they were GPs, one referred me to a female colleague and I wish the other had rather than saying its probably fine… it wasn’t that’s why I went back months later and saw a different male Dr who made me an appointment with a female Dr. As sexist as it is, I will be requesting female Dr’s in future. I almost hate myself for it but it’s more comfortable, they’re more likely to understand somewhat.

    • April 7, 2017 / 12:30

      Hi Liz

      Sorry for my late reply, your comment was hiding in my spam box. Well done you for fighting for informed consent. It is SO important and you are doing women in your area a service. I completely understand why you would request a female doctor. I don’t think that’s sexist. Sometimes you need to be understood in the way that only a woman can. Its not like you are requesting a female dentist where its irrelevant. If I go for a virus or something then its not an issue but for stuff relating to womanhood, I would rather be seen by a woman too. Thank you for your comment Liz.

  2. March 30, 2017 / 10:29

    These are all awful experiences and I have absolutely ZERO doubt that many other women have had experiences like them! I’ve been incredibly lucky – my most regular GP was (and still is) a brilliant caring man who has always listened to me, and any other male medical staff I’ve had have been great. But, again, zero doubt that this is a general and widespread issue.

    • March 30, 2017 / 10:39

      Oh I remember you saying how great your doctor was. I need to find one like that! Thanks for your comment – and your support. Xx

  3. March 30, 2017 / 10:48

    I’ve had a similar experience at a breast clinic with a male consultant – although this was before babies so not related to breastfeeding but I was made to feel like a time waster, even though I had gone on my (female) GP’s recommendation. I did visit a young male GP when Arthur was small and had really bad colic/reflux who told me to just stop breastfeeding and switch to comfort formula milk and refused to prescribe the medication my child needed. (Husband went absolutely mad and rang him to tell him what for). I’m not sure it’s just a male thing though….I’m sure there are issues with the NHS being totally over stretched, but it shouldn’t be an excuse. I had a horrible experience with my first labour and I never complained. Now I’m pregnant again I’ve raised the issue and I have a meeting with the head midwife at the same hospital to make sure that certain procedures are put in place so the same thing doesn’t happen. It’s never too late to stand up against things that aren’t right x

    • April 7, 2017 / 12:25

      Hi Sarah, sorry for the late reply to your comment. It had gone in my spam box that I always forget to check. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You are so right, it is never too late to stand up to things that aren’t right. I’m sorry you’ve had some shitty experiences before too. Well done to you for meeting with the Head of Midwifery. I’m sure you will save others from going through the same thing. I hope you have a better experience this birth. x

  4. Sam | North East Family Fun Blog
    March 30, 2017 / 10:50

    Eeesh that is terrible. Sometimes I wonder why some consultants specialise in the areas they do? Did you complain the PALs? What was the outcome?

    • April 7, 2017 / 12:22

      Hey Sam, sorry for late reply – your comment went to spam. I didn’t actually complain in the end. I was just exhausted by the experience. Then I felt angry at myself for not complaining. This blog post is like my vow to never not complain again.

  5. Michelle
    March 30, 2017 / 11:49

    I’m pleased to be able to say I’ve never had such experiences but reading yours has made me really angry. And I’m pleased you complained.

    • March 30, 2017 / 12:12

      Thank you Michelle. I’m pleased you’ve had better experiences

  6. March 30, 2017 / 12:41

    You seem to have had a terrible time but in my limited experience of surgeries and hospitals (thankfully not having to frequent them very often) I’ve had equal or worse experiences with female rather than male professionals in the health service, and not just doctors, so I think it’s not just a question of gender but also one of professionalism x

    • March 30, 2017 / 12:42

      Definitely an issue of professionalism, thanks for sharing Deb.

  7. March 30, 2017 / 17:15

    Brilliant post, Ny!

    I had awful after care following the expeditious arrival of A. And all of the perpetrators were women, alas!

    … And at a later breast cancer scare recently it was (almost!) laughable how the female consultant treated me (and Jon). She was so abrupt and rude it was like a comedy sketch! I often think they must be overworked, undervalued (and sometimes underpaid!) to be so bloody obnoxious.

    My male GP, however, has been excellent, and the male anesthetist who drifted me off for a repair following some ghastly midwifery handwork, was also an absolute legend!

    I think it’s just the luck of the draw. Some men are dicks, some women are dicks.

    There are dicks everywhere…and they sure as hell let a lot of ’em into med school!

    (There are also lots of lovely, compassionate doctors out there too- many of whom I studied with!)

    People should just not be dicks.

    • April 7, 2017 / 12:20

      Hi Ellie

      Sorry for the late reply, your comment went into spam for some reason. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You’ve summed it up really well actually. People should just not be dicks. It shouldn’t be difficult should it?! I think the comments I got on this show that there is a widespread problem with how women are treated by doctors but you are right, that the problem extends to women too. I’m sorry you’ve had some horrid treatment too. Its not on.

      Ny x

  8. March 30, 2017 / 18:10

    Wow this is terrible treatment! The only time I have been treated awfully was indeed when in labour but actually it was by a woman… she was an older lady and clearly didn’t want to be there (we later learned she was due to leave in a few hours after me arriving~ luckily this meant she was replaced by a fabulous lady!) She genuinely told me… and I quote “you don’t look like your in enough pain…”. Brilliant. <3

    • March 30, 2017 / 18:57

      Omg that’s shocking. So pleased you got a great lady after not so long. I think maybe my article should be is there an issue with women’s health services full stop now

      • March 30, 2017 / 21:49

        Haha yes possibly… it was quite awful! She even excused herself from the room so she could remove seeds from her teeth as shed just eaten a roll… spent most of the time just reading my notes extensively without really speaking to me… told me to walk around the hospital and then joked when I came back in a wheelchair (because I was in LABOUR an couldn’t walk around a fricking hospital!) and then again excused herself to eat a yogurt!? She was terrible! I was so glad she left as she could tell she was making me very angry! <3

        • March 31, 2017 / 08:51

          Jesus wept!!! If that happens to you again, demand a different midwife. I’m sorry that happened to you. X

          • March 31, 2017 / 11:11

            It was pretty shocking but don’t you worry she knew exactly how I felt! And luckily it as the end of her shift so… the next lady brought me toast and orange juice in my pool so s’all good! <3

          • April 4, 2017 / 07:57

            The good midwives are worth their weight in gold!

          • April 4, 2017 / 09:42

            Oh definitely!! The one that was so good was only a junior midwife too (Ive heard a lot of people turn their noses up at the thought of having a junior midwife) but she was so amazing!

          • April 6, 2017 / 09:18

            I’ve heard a lot of times from friends about new younger midwives being fantastic.

  9. Karen
    March 30, 2017 / 19:03

    How awful your experiences are!

    My gp is fantastic, a lovely man, can’t fault him at all. I’ve recently been to him about women’s health issues and he was fantastic.

    But…I didn’t have a great experience with a male consultant during my second pregnancy. I wasn’t listened to at all. He passed my horrendous back pain off as something I was making up and exaggerating! He told me I was to have a natural Labour and I had no reason for a section, and that also the trauma I experienced with my first labour was not important. It wasn’t until I met with the anaesthetist that I got listened too…who was also male….he took one look at my MRI results and he said no way, u are having a section, u can’t give birth naturally as you could end up paralysed!

    I also didn’t have a good experience with an occupational health doctor. When I was off sick for a long period of time due to my back problems he thought I was milking it so I couldn’t work. All I wanted to do was play with my daughter and go to work like everyone else. I loved that job so much. I was desperate to go back. He just didn’t believe me at all and made me feel like I was 1cm tall! He even said to me…’u know Karen…u won’t get disability benefits for this you know’!!!! Yeah I know actually….and I wouldn’t be entitled anyway as actually my husband probably earns at least 5 times your salary anyway u cheeky effing b******d! I couldn’t believe he was saying I was lying and milking it to live off benefits!

    When I went to a private male consultant for my back….he explained that I need to wait until I’m a lot older to get the surgery on my back that I need. I totally understand his reasons…but when he told me to go on certain medications for the pain I said I couldn’t as I was breast feeding. He told me to simply just stop feeding her and get the pain under control. Not that easy mate! And when I tried to explain this he looked at me as if I was an idiot. I ended up walking out crying me eyes out!

    During my first pregnancy I had a bad time with a female consultant. Horrible woman! She always talked to me like a peice of s**t on her shoe.

    I have also not felt listened to by certain female gps. Nothing terrible though.

  10. Karen suffield
    March 30, 2017 / 19:34

    How awful your experiences are!

    My gp is fantastic, a lovely man, can’t fault him at all. I’ve recently been to him about women’s health issues and he was fantastic.

    But…I didn’t have a great experience with a male consultant during my second pregnancy. I wasn’t listened to at all. He passed my horrendous back pain off as something I was making up and exaggerating! He told me I was to have a natural Labour and I had no reason for a section, and that also the trauma I experienced with my first labour was not important. It wasn’t until I met with the anaesthetist that I got listened too…who was also male….he took one look at my MRI results and he said no way, u are having a section, u can’t give birth naturally as you could end up paralysed!

    I also didn’t have a good experience with an occupational health doctor. When I was off sick for a long period of time due to my back problems he thought I was milking it so I couldn’t work. All I wanted to do was play with my daughter and go to work like everyone else. I loved that job so much. I was desperate to go back. He just didn’t believe me at all and made me feel like I was 1cm tall! He even said to me…’u know Karen…u won’t get disability benefits for this you know’!!!! Yeah I know actually….and I wouldn’t be entitled anyway as actually my husband probably earns at least 5 times your salary anyway u cheeky effing b******d! I couldn’t believe he was saying I was lying and milking it to live off benefits!

    When I went to a private male consultant for my back….he explained that I need to wait until I’m a lot older to get the surgery on my back that I need. I totally understand his reasons…but when he told me to go on certain medications for the pain I said I couldn’t as I was breast feeding. He told me to simply just stop feeding her and get the pain under control. Not that easy mate! And when I tried to explain this he looked at me as if I was an idiot. I ended up walking out crying me eyes out!

    During my first pregnancy I had a bad time with a female consultant. Horrible woman! She always talked to me like a peice of s**t on her shoe.

    I have also not felt listened to by certain female gps. Nothing terrible though.

    • March 31, 2017 / 08:53

      Oh Karen I’m so sorry you’ve had such a lot of bad experiences too. It’s not ok. So frustrating when all you wanted was some help and support. I know how much you struggled. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Here’s hoping for better for all women in the future! Xx

  11. March 30, 2017 / 19:53

    So I had a rubbish experience with a female midwife during labour, who gave me medication without my consent and refused to check me when I wanted to push because ‘first babies don’t come out this fast’ – he was born via traumatic assisted delivery twenty minutes later and we nearly lost him.

    On a different note, just earlier this week my male GP told me that the cause of my neck pain was being overweight, and to lose weight I should, and I quote: ‘fry food less, boil it more’. Without taking any form of history or checking my notes.

    I still have too much rage to be able to verbalise!

    • March 30, 2017 / 20:23

      Jesus! Some horrid experiences there! Im sorry! Neither of those are ok. I can’t believe that midwife gave you medication without your consent. Maybe it’s just an issue with how women are treated generally!

  12. April 19, 2017 / 19:27

    I’ve not really had many male consultants and can’t add any horror stories, but form my experience working in a hospital I would really encourage people to complain. If people keep complaining about the same person it can’t be brushed off. PALS are great for small things, but formal complaints which go through the complaints process are taken much more seriously and should be used for these kind of experiences.

    • April 19, 2017 / 20:37

      Oh that’s great to know. Thanks for sharing Kate.

  13. October 25, 2017 / 15:58

    I think that ‘why you came to us with your silly problems’ is a big, big problem in the UK. As I have a few systems to compare with, I can reassure you that is NOT okay. I know people in the UK who didn’t got to doctors for that reason and ended up with late stage cancers and other health problems. But every time you go there, they take a piss, in my case regardless of their gender. Last time I’ve seen a man with a mole on my back that looks slightly out of shape (as my mum got similar ones removed in Germany as some could be potential cancer carriers) and told me to go and get mine checked, just in case. They said to me they couldn’t send every single person with such problems for potential cancer testings as it would be too expensive for UK. So he said I should keep an eye on it or ask someone to keep an eye it because it’s on my back and I cannot see it.

    • October 25, 2017 / 16:00

      Oh that’s not ok! I’m sorry you’ve had crap treatment too. Thank you for sharing, it’s interesting to hear from someone who has used a few different systems.

      • October 25, 2017 / 16:02

        I’m a Capricorn though, so I basically get all tests I want to get done even if takes me longer! But I’m with you on that – how many girls would give up and think it’s normal!

        • October 26, 2017 / 05:36

          Totally! I’ve been for lump checks several times now where they’ve made me feel like a time waster and now I wouldn’t want to go again

  14. BadWolf
    February 27, 2018 / 12:08

    In my experiences being an asshole isn’t a male privilege. My first gp was a woman and I left her office in tears and freaked out because she couldn’t take the time to explain what PCOs is. When I went back to tell her that the birth control she prescribed was making me sick (literally cause me asthma and periodic nausea ) she dismissed me and told me I’d get use to it. My second GP was male, he wasn’t dismissive of my concerns but didn’t make me feel comfortable or took the time to explain things and scared me by saying I might have HPV but should wait for the test results (misdiagnosed me, I just have irregular structure).. I spent a week in utter terror. Third GP a great woman, made me feel at ease with being naked, changed my meds and actually told me that since my PCOs symptoms aren’t severe I may go off the pill. I changed a GP again, this one is male and he is amazing. He eased my fears about some health concerns, he listened to me, didn’t dismiss me and explained things about my body and anatomy that no-one ever told me before. It’s easy to amass bad experiences and make it an issue but doctors in general are being dismissive of female issues and it doesn’t have to do with their gender but by their stuck up opinion that they know better.

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