18 December 2007

Female heart patients are losing out

Why are women "less likely to receive standard medications for heart disease and less likely to be enrolled on rehabilitation programmes"? The BBC suggests that part of the reason that women lose out and more likely to die from the condition, is that they generally contract cardiovascular disease when they are older, and therefore fighting other diseases simultaneously. This may be true, but why are women being excluded from medical trials testing new drugs to treat this condition? Why are the recognised symptoms so male-orientated? Oh yeah, the women are excluded from all the studies on cardiovascular disease.

I think that this article reveals some very fundamental problems with the way in which we recognise and treat disease in this country. Of course, there are some diseases which only appear in males or females, for example testicular/cervical cancers. There are also some diseases which disproportionately affect one gender, for example breast cancer. But where there is clear evidence that both men and women suffer from a condition, why are we focussing all of our efforts on only one gender? Perhaps it would be easier for doctors to treat patients if there were 'men's diseases' and 'women's diseases', each with their own distinct symptoms and treatments. Unfortunately for them though, this is the real world. Men and women who suffer from the same diseases have different symptoms, and doctors should be equally capable of recognising the illnesses in both sexes. One gender does not have the 'proper' symptoms, whilst the other has only 'more subtle' shadows of the genuine symptoms.

Just because a woman is old, and potentially suffering from other illnesses too, why should she receive substandard care? I can't help but worry that one of the reasons that women don't receive the care that they deserve is that it does not have the campaigning potential that an illness like breast cancer does. I'm not saying that it is not important to fund breast cancer research and treatment, but the suffers of this illness are frequently young, in the peak of their reproductive years. They may have young children, large networks of friends and family who are able to advocate for them during these most difficult of times. Perhaps also our society's obsession with breasts contributes to the success and popularity of the breast cancer campaign.

So where does this leave women with diseases which aren't sensational in any way, who don't have celebrity endorsed poster campaigns, charity runs and media coverage? They affect older, less "camera-friendly" women? Are these people worth less? Cardiovascular disease in women should be treated as seriously and carefully as it is in men. The patient's age, gender or the fact that they have other illnesses should have no effect at all on the quality of the treatment that they receive.

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