When my grandmother was 16 she was misdiagnosed with a brain tumour. She would lie on her bedroom floor, listening to ‘La Mer’ by Charles Tebet over and over, crying about her crush on Angus McDonald, the boy next door. She’d climb the oak tree in her leafy Gordon backyard to spy through his bedroom window. Naturally, her parents called the doctor. She was rushed to hospital and poked and prodded. A lumbar puncture left her bedridden for weeks. In retrospect, she attributes her symptoms to the lethal combination of PMS and a teenage crush.
Sixty-five years later, I’m sitting opposite my GP in her dishevelled Potts Point surgery. I’m listing my symptoms. I have splitting headaches, my period cramps are unbearable and my mental health is at an all time low. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier but in the past 18 months I’m as anxious as a turkey in December. I ask whether the pill could be to blame but am immediately shut down – not a chance! My cramps should be better now that I’m taking my new best friend Estelle and, most crucially, there’s no way that the pill could affect my mental health.
Weeks later, after conversations with many female friends about their (usually similar) experiences on the same pill, I book an appointment with my aunty’s GP. Her practice is in Newtown so I think maybe she’s open minded. I enlist my mum for moral support and climb the rickety stairs to her terrace-house surgery, but I am once again dismissed. This doctor, who has never met me, insists that my anxiety makes me irrational – it’s all in my head – but to humour me, she prescribes a different pill.
It’s been 65 years since French pop music sent my grandmother to hospital, and still doctors are notoriously misdiagnosing women and dismissing their problems. A Breast Cancer Network Australia study found, in 2018, that doctors’ dismissal of young women’s health concerns leads to substantial delays in diagnosis. There remains an enormous misconception within the medical community about female ‘hysteria’, and a belief that women are more likely to see doctors unnecessarily. A 1999 UK study proved this undeniably false.
Further studies found that 30-50% of women diagnosed with depression were misdiagnosed and that the underlying disease often remained undetected. Once a psychological disorder was in a patient’s medical history, future issues would often be dismissed, creating a never-ending cycle of misdiagnosis.
Where my grandmother and I are fortunate that our misdiagnoses caused no long-term harm, this isn’t always the case. Misdiagnosis can be extremely dangerous – in the US, 40,000 to 80,000 deaths per year are due to delayed or inaccurate diagnosis – and women are disproportionately affected. A 2014 study found it took significantly longer for women to be seen in the emergency department, and that they were rarely classified as an urgent case.
Attitudes within the medical profession clearly need to change. For many women, the solution is seeing a female physician. A 2018 study linked male doctors to worse outcomes for women suffering heart attacks. It’s a good sign that the numbers of female medical graduates are vastly increasing, however they are not reaching the same positions of power as their male counterparts, and many believe that real systemic attitudinal change will need to come both from the bottom and from the top. Ultimately, however, doctors of all genders simply need to listen to their patients with an open mind.
I finally call a friend’s mum. She’s a gynaecologist. I give her the same spiel I’ve given to the two doctors prior, except this time there isn’t a doubt in her mind that my symptoms are caused by Estelle. I’ve now stopped taking the pill and I’ve never felt better. But perhaps most importantly, for the first time in months, I feel heard.