While healthcare is advancing, there are still gaping voids in the system when it comes to women’s health.
As a person living in the United States, I’m extremely lucky in more ways than I can count.
I have easy access to clean water, fresh food, and indoor plumbing. If I have a headache, I can go to the corner store and buy a packet of ibuprofen. If I cut myself, there are plenty of bandages and antibacterial ointment in my cupboard. For anything more serious, there are at least a half-dozen walk-in urgent care clinics within two miles of my apartment, plus two large hospitals. And thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I have good, practically-free health insurance (for now, anyway).
If you have these things, you’re lucky, too. Because as women, we can’t take anything for granted. In this country, as well as around the world, simply being born female means our health is at risk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has proclaimed April 7 “World Health Day,” encouraging people to focus on “global and local conversations about ways to achieve health for all” and urge countries around the globe to adopt universal health care policies that guarantee affordable coverage for everyone, so that we all have the best chance at living a long and healthy life.
In that spirit, here are nine things that, as women, we need to be aware of as we fight for a more equitable health care system.
1. Medical mistakes are the third-most-common cause of death in the United States.
In the United States, we tend to put a great deal of trust in our doctors, nurses, and hospitals. So it’s alarming to find out that nearly 10 percent of all deaths in America – and maybe more – are due to medical error. Robert Pearl, author of Mistreated: Why We Think We’re Getting Good Health Care — and Why We’re Usually Wrong, says close to 200,000 people die in hospitals each year because of “doctors who fail to communicate effectively with their colleagues, doctors and nurses who dole out the wrong medications, and doctors who are responsible for causing or spreading hospital infections.” When you consider the well-established fact that women are less likely to be listened to and taken seriously by medical professionals, this statistic is far more likely to be deadly for women than for men.
2. Half the people in the world can’t access essential healthcare.
The WHO estimates that at least half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare. Their 2015 report, Tracking Universal Health Coverage, found that at least 400 million people worldwide are unable to obtain things like birth control, immunization, prenatal care, skilled birth attendants, and access to clean water and sanitation (yes, clean water and plumbing are health care issues!). The WHO’s Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny says, “The world’s most disadvantaged people are missing out on even the most basic services.” And many of those basic services – birth control and maternity care – are specific to women.
3. Healthcare costs push millions of people into poverty.
What happens when women can’t get the healthcare they need? Well, if they don’t die, they go broke trying to access care. The WHO says that almost 100 million people globally are living in extreme poverty because of healthcare costs. Nearly 12 percent of the world’s population spends at least 10 percent of their entire household budget on medical care, incurring what’s known as “catastrophic expenditures.” This isn’t limited to people in developing countries, either – even in wealthier countries that have high levels of access to healthcare (like the United States, and many European countries), more and more people are spending a bigger share of their household budget on medical expenses.
4. Domestic violence is a healthcare crisis.
Shifting focus from access to and affordability of healthcare, women also face specific health hazards that men do not, such as domestic violence. The WHO estimates that between 15 and 71 percent of women around the world have been the victims of physical or sexual violence at the hands of a male partner during some time in their lives. “The abuse cuts across all social and economic backgrounds…[and] has serious health consequences for women, from injuries to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, depression and chronic diseases.” Childhood sexual abuse is epidemic, as well: up to one in five women report being sexually abused before the age of 15, and far more never report abuse.
5. The opiate epidemic is much worse for women.
You’ve likely heard there’s an opioid crisis going on in the United States: CNN reports that more than two million Americans are dependent on or regularly abuse prescription pain pills (morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, fentanyl) and street drugs (heroin). In 2016, more than 63,600 people died of opioid overdoses – an average of 115 per day. What you may not have heard is that this crisis disproportionately affects women. The Los Angeles Times writes that “deaths among women from opioid overdose have increased at a much faster rate than for men” – an alarming 400 percent for women, compared with 265 for men. Furthermore, “states where doctors write the most opioid prescriptions per 100 residents are also the states with the widest overall disparities between men’s and women’s health.”
6. Women are still dying from childbirth.
Every day, more than 800 women die from complications due to pregnancy and childbirth. While the vast majority of these deaths occur in developing countries, where access to adequate healthcare is limited, enough of them happen in the United States and other places where good medical care is plentiful. In fact, maternal mortality is increasing in the United States, rather than decreasing. An article in Slate chalks this up to several factors, including poverty and access to birth control and abortion; a planned pregnancy tends to be healthier than an unplanned one. “The poorer and more marginalized a woman is, the greater her risk of death,” according to the United Nations Population Fund. “It is the poorest and least educated women who are most vulnerable to maternal death and disability.” It’s worth nothing that n the United States, black women die in childbirth at triple the rate of white women.
7. Birth control is ridiculously expensive.
For those women who would like to avoid the risk of dying in childbirth by carefully planing their pregnancies, or who would like to avoid pregnancy altogether, it’s often not as easy as it should be. According to Planned Parenthood, “a 2010 survey found that more than a third of female voters have struggled to afford prescription birth control at some point in their lives, and as a result, used birth control inconsistently.” Even with insurance, co-pays for birth control pills can easily add up to over $600 a year in the United States. Other methods, such as IUDs, often cost hundreds of dollars, with or without insurance.
8. Millions of little girls undergo genital mutilation.
One of the more horrifying realities for many young girls and women around the world is the continued practice of female genital mutilation, or FGM. This is defined by the WHO as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM is most prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, with Somalia and Ethiopia having the highest number of women who suffer from it. In Somalia, 98 percent of little girls are subject to this barbaric practice, while over 27 million Ethiopian women have been victims of FGM. Immigrant communities in North American, Europe, and Australia also practice FGM, even though it’s against the law. In 1997, The Centers for Disease Control estimated that 168,000 girls in the United States had either undergone FGM or were at risk of it.
9. Women are more likely to go blind than men.
If all this awful news about women’s healthcare makes you want to cover your eyes, you actually might not have to bother. The WHO says that, on top of everything else, women are at higher risk of going blind than men. “Across the world and at all ages, women have a significantly higher risk of becoming visually impaired than men,” says a WHO flier on women’s health facts. This is in part due to “cultural differences in the perceived value of surgery or treatment for women.” In other words, there are plenty of people out there who think women don’t need to see, anyway. Bad news for them: we’re not closing our eyes to this injustice, and we won’t keep out mouths shut anymore, either.
Image via shutterstock.com.
Comment: What are your experiences with accessing health care?
Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.