Though arising from the #MeToo movement, the phrase “believe women” is applicable anywhere. Believe women when we say the office is too cold, when we say we’re being paid less and especially when we say we’re in pain.
Scepticism toward the latter is costing lives: according to a study led by the University of Edinburgh and funded by the British Heart Foundation, women who had gone to A&E after experiencing chest pain (and were later found to be suffering from a heart attack) were half as likely as men to receive the recommended medical treatment. The research comes after it was revealed that entering identical heart symptoms for women and men on Babylon, a virtual GP app praised by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, resulted in different diagnoses. Its artificial intelligence tells a 60-year-old female smoker who reports chest pain and nausea that she is simply having a panic attack. A 60-year-old male smoker with exactly the same symptoms is told that he might be having a heart attack and is advised to go to A&E. Here’s hoping that the researchers from the University of Edinburgh are predominantly male, so that their research is taken more seriously than the anguished cries of women that have rung out since the beginning of time.
The differing responses were rationalised by the app creators as answers provided on “the basis of probability”. It explained that women’s risk of coronary heart disease “is well known to be different from that of men”, and that “women are almost twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety disorders”. That would be a satisfying explanation, if this was only about the diagnosis of heart attacks. But whether it be the constant misidentification of endometriosis or something as minor as a headache, women’s genuine pain is consistently seen as amplified or hyperbolised. A “Calm down dear, it’s only an aneurysm” approach to women’s health has seen a culture of misdiagnosis become less scandalous and more boringly anecdotal for most of us. Black women, in particular, have been shown to be perceived as harbouring otherworldly high pain thresholds, making frequent, flustered pleas for symptoms to be taken seriously a practical rite of passage. It is perhaps the only area in which our ability is actually grossly overestimated.
Though the 19th-century hysteria diagnosis has long been scrapped from medical books, it lives on in the refusal to provide adequate diagnosis and pain relief for women. According to research from 2016, period pain can be as debilitating as a heart attack, but I can’t imagine expecting someone suffering from the latter to get by on a hot water bottle and paracetamol.