Medical malpractice is the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. Johns Hopkins University estimates there are 250,000 medical errors in U.S. hospitals each year. About one in twenty American adults are misdiagnosed each year, and almost everyone will experience at least one diagnostic error in his or her lifetime. That is especially true for women, who are misdiagnosed at alarming rates.
A 2016 study found that women have a 50% higher change of receiving an incorrect diagnosis after a heart attack, and strokes are 30% more likely to be overlooked in women. Doctors also tend to take longer to correctly diagnose women, with autoimmune diseases taking about five years to be correctly diagnosed, and female-specific conditions taking close to a decade before they are diagnosed.
Oftentimes women relate their symptoms to life situations or stressors, so doctors sometimes ignore the true physical symptom and its root cause and chalk it up to stress too. Some conditions that are more common in, or exclusive to, women are among the hardest to diagnose and least understood. Reproductive issues can also pose a medical mystery, adding to the misdiagnosis of women.
There are several theories as to why women are misdiagnosed at much higher rates than men. Some think it has to do with medical school curriculum and how physicians learn about certain conditions. Those conditions and their presentation might be more common to men, whereas women manifest the symptoms differently, making it harder for the physician to diagnose. Some believe it has to do with women being more emotional than men and doctors tuning out when a woman gets emotional. Doctors might also be more likely to write a condition off as psychological, rather than physical, according to this theory. Last, some believe women simply need female physicians. New research has indicated people, not just women, cared for by female physicians live longer and are less likely to have repeat hospital visits than those with male doctors. Previous research has found women physicians invest more time and engage more with patients than their male colleagues.