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Why There’s A Compelling Case For Gender-Specific Health Research

Although it’s well known that women are far more likely to make an appointment with their doctor, they’re also more at risk of delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis of some gastrointestinal diseases (1).

My name’s Ally Frost (2) and I’m a research assistant for Elevate Talent, the organisation founded by my mother Jacqueline Frost (3). We pride ourselves on supporting mid-level female executives to advance their careers and create a sustainable and enjoyable work-life balance.

I have an undergraduate degree in  Biomedical Sciences from Newcastle University and have just recently completed a Master’s in Regenerative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London. I’m passionate about research and am shocked to have discovered that even though women are more likely to visit their GP with their health concerns, they’re at greater risk of delayed diagnosis, particularly when it comes to Crohn’s disease (4).

In this blog, I’m going to share what Crohn’s disease is, why I think women are often misdiagnosed, and what you can do to ensure you get the earliest diagnosis possible so that you can manage the disease and enjoy a healthy life and career. 

What is Crohn’s disease?

Crohn’s disease creates inflammation in the digestive system and can cause life-threatening complications. Typical symptoms include diarrhoea, blood in your stools, weight loss, fatigue, stomach aches and cramps (I’ll share more on the symptoms shortly). Some people experience symptoms on a constant basis, while others experience “flare-ups” that come and go.

What causes Crohn’s disease?

It’s believed that several things contribute to Crohn’s disease, including your genetics and your environment (for example, your immune system, smoking, history of stomach bugs, or an imbalance of gut bacteria).

It’s understood that females younger than 14 are at low risk of having Crohn’s disease (compared to males), but when they reach puberty that risk increases. By the time women are between 25 and 29 years old (or 35+), it’s reported that they are more prone to Crohn’s disease than men (5).

I’m keen to find out whether they are really at higher risk as they get older, or if the truth is that they’ve been misdiagnosed when they were younger.

3 reasons why women may be misdiagnosed

Some key reasons for a misdiagnosis may be:

  1. There’s a higher prevalence of functional gastrointestinal disorders in women, which can hinder an accurate diagnosis or easily lead to a misdiagnosis (6).
  2. Women often experience gender-specific symptoms that are atypical to Crohn’s disease (known as extra-intestinal manifestations). They are more likely to present with arthritis-like joint pain, or issues with their skin or eyes, which can contribute to a misdiagnosis. Women are also more likely to seek help from their gynaecologist than a gastroenterologist because they may experience perineal discomfort and assume that they’re the best person to support them (7).
  3. There’s a lack of data on how a person’s sex impacts on treatment for irritable bowel diseases. This means that if a woman is misdiagnosed and prescribed medication for a different bowel issue, the medication may well mask the other symptoms of Crohn’s disease (resulting in delayed diagnosis or misdiagnosis).

Why does an early diagnosis matter?

Unfortunately there is no cure for Crohn’s disease at present, but, in a situation where surgery is recommended to remove part of the inflamed intestine, early detection can lead to better recovery and improved long-term management. Early diagnosis also means women can manage the symptoms and some of the causal factors better, including stress levels that are understandably higher when we don’t know what’s wrong with us. 

Next steps

I believe it’s time that there is in-depth research into how a person’s gender impacts on their health, and what needs to change to ensure an accurate diagnosis and the development of a bespoke treatment plan.

While it might seem alarming to know that even though we women are more proactive at tending to our health we are being misdiagnosed, being forewarned means we’re forearmed and in a stronger position to insist on further investigations or a second opinion.

What gender biases have you experienced in healthcare? What would you like to see change? I’m in my twenties now, but we owe it to ourselves, our children or future children, our elders and women all over the world to ensure that we are informed and empowered so that we can be persistent and obtain accurate diagnoses.

Elevate Talent is driven by women who want to make a difference in the world and to their own personal and professional lives. We support ambitious, creative, successful women to climb the career wall, while supporting organisations to benefit from the array of skills and expertise their female talent has to offer. Get in touch for more information.

P.S. If you’ve found this blog interesting, you’ll likely benefit from reading Why Women In Stressful Roles Need To Double Down On Self-Care.

Please note that the information provided in this blog is for general informational and educational purposes only. If you have any health concerns or medical queries, please seek the appropriate medical advice.

References

(1) https://academic.oup.com/ecco-jcc/article/16/Supplement_1/i239/6512839

(2) Ally Frost

(3) Jacqueline Frost

(4) Crohn’s disease

(5) https://www.karger.com/Article/Fulltext/504701

(6) Misdiagnosis 

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3127025/