Why So Many Women Feel Unsafe And Unheard At The Doctor's Office

by Olivia Loving
Sean Locke

Mereteh Inermo is wary around men. Her great-uncle began sexually abusing her when she was 2, and he continued until she was 13. She was left with PTSD, general anxiety, social anxiety and night terrors.

So when she was 19 and began experiencing pain during sex, she hesitated before going to the gynecologist. But when the pain became severe enough, she asked her general practitioner for a referral. He sent her to a specialist in Haugesund, Norway, where she lives, and included a long note in her file about her abuse.

As the date of the appointment approached, Mereteh became more and more anxious. When she arrived at the clinic, she requested a female gynecologist, but was told there were none available. But a doctor – a man – would see her soon.

“When I got in, the doctor barely talked to me,” she said. “He sent me to take my clothes off so that he could start the exam.”

When he finished with her ultrasound, he said he "wanted to check me and see if I had anything he could ‘feel inside’ me.”

But the exam took a long time – almost 10 minutes – and Mereteh became uneasy.

“I told him to stop immediately, " she said. "And that I had never had someone who was examining me take this long.”

After he finally stopped, he told Mereteh that “the pain was most likely mental because of the trauma from [her] childhood, and it might ease up after [she was] more comfortable with [her] boyfriend.”

Mereteh stepped behind a curtain to put her clothes back on. When she re-entered the room, the doctor was sitting in the chair, masturbating and moaning. Mereteh was shocked and speechless. She grabbed her purse, slammed the door and never went back.

When she contacted the police, they told her to file a complaint with Norway’s Ministry of Health and Care Services. She went in for questioning that day, but authorities closed the case three weeks later because of a lack of evidence. They suspended the doctor during the investigation and reinstated him once it was over.

"The cops and health department didn’t take me seriously at the time, since he had been practicing for so long and had a good reputation," she said.

This was three years ago. Since then, more women have come forward, and the doctor was finally stripped of his license last month.

In the last few years, it has become informal practice in Norway for a nurse to be in the room while a male gynecologist examines a patient. Mereteh avoids doctors, but she will see one if the doctor is female and if there is a nurse present.

One of Mereteh’s biggest frustrations has been the health department’s treatment of her. It wasn’t until other women came forward that they took the case seriously.

“It made me stop trusting doctors,” Mereteh said.

Mereteh is seeing a fertility specialist right now, and she dreads every appointment. She lives with distrust – for the family member who abused her, for the mother who let it happen. The abuse by doctors only exacerbated her anxiety and flashbacks.

“There isn’t a night without nightmares,” she said.

More Stories of Abuse

In preparation for this piece, I surveyed women to ask if they'd ever been mistreated by a doctor. Over 160 women replied with stories about abusive, offensive or belittling doctors.

Natali Smith, who is 25 and has Crohn’s disease, said that one of her doctors “shoved a finger up my butt without even a warning. My dad heard my gasp from the other side of the curtain and was appalled.”

Another woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that when she protested a doctor’s treatment of her, he "knocked [her] out with drugs." The woman, 49, now insists on bringing her husband or a friend into the examination room. She fears that a doctor will not listen to her concerns if she is alone.

When Marie, 33, went to a male acupuncturist, he began to massage the inside of Marie's vagina after he inserted the needles into her body. Marie later discovered that she was not acupuncturist’s only victim. He was eventually taken to court.

In 2009 -- three years after the acupuncturist’s assault -- she went to an Auyrvedic massage therapist. He felt her breasts, with her permission, and then said that they were “much too saggy.” Then, without any warning or precedent, he began massaging Marie's pubic bone. He proclaimed that she had “stuck energy, and need[ed] to have more sex with a man on top.”

After she made a complaint to the Department of Health, he was taken to court, but it took another year to put him on trial.

The above experiences represent the most extreme end of the spectrum of what a woman can face in terms of doctor abuse and mistreatment. The perceived authority of a medical professional, his implied permission to touch a woman's body and her vulnerability in the situation create the perfect storm for an abuse of power. These circumstances set the stage for a range of uncomfortable, demeaning and even life-threatening situations for women seeking treatment.

On the less extreme but still troubling end of the spectrum, a third of the 160 women I surveyed said that doctors had made inappropriate comments about their sexual activity, reproductive plans, weight or menstrual cycles, when these topics weren't related to a medical issue.

When Amelia, 36, complained to her doctor about severe cramps, he told her that she probably had an STD. This was after Amelia had told him she’d been in a monogamous, sexually exclusive relationship for five years.

“[The issue] could have been a lot of things other than that,” she said. “And it indeed was.”

Mistreatment by Female Doctors

I initially suspected that most women would report abuse and mistreatment by male doctors. But for many, the harshest treatment has been from other women.

Elizabeth 31, said that “women gynecologists and GPs have been much more judgmental about my life choices than any of my male doctors.” When Elizabeth went to get an IUD, her female gynecologist criticized her choice, saying, “IUDs are only for women who are in committed relationships, are married, have children, and are not looking to have more children.” Elizabeth was single at the time.

Elizabeth was shocked at the shame the woman put her through for trying to exercise her basic reproductive rights. She didn’t protest out of fear that her doctor would withhold a prescription she needed.

One woman, who wants to be known only as “A.,” had a female doctor in college who interrogated her on her decision not to have sex.

“She would say things like, ‘But why?’ or “Don’t you even want to try it out to see?’”

It wasn't the first time a doctor had made inappropriate comments about her sexual activity. In middle school, A. stopped getting her period. Her pediatrician refused to believe that she wasn’t pregnant, despite her insistence that she wasn’t sexually active.

She sent A.’s father out of the room and asked A. repeatedly if she was pregnant. A. was eventually diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, which explained her amenorrhea.

Melody, 24, of Vancouver, Washington, said that she’s “had uncomfortable experiences with all doctors, but far more with women who seem to think they know me – and my body – better than I know myself."

“One of my most trying medical experiences was my fight to be sterilized,” Melody said. “My female primary care doctor at the time used her own life experiences to tell me my decision was invalid. It still infuriates me.”

One woman, who chose to remain anonymous, blames this behavior on a “patriarchal system that teaches [female doctors] to dismiss women as whiny drama queens.” In her experience, the “most stinging and dangerous minimization of symptoms has come from women. It stings most because I expect them to know better.”

A Modern Diagnosis of “Hysteria”

Female hysteria,” a popular diagnosis until the 20th century, seems to linger over medical assessments today. Many women told me that doctors routinely accuse them of overreacting or being dramatic. Doctors invalidate their pain, especially when it's related to their reproductive health.

So women have learned to take treatment into their own hands – whether that means buying a blood pressure cuff to use at home, researching symptoms and disorders that doctors aren’t trained to recognize, or talking to other sufferers in private Facebook groups.

When Amy, 35, fell on her head and broke her arm, she went to the ER. By the time she arrived, she was slurring her words. But the male nurse didn't write her symptoms in her chart. When she finally saw the doctor, he told her to take Advil and return to work.

Amy, who was in severe pain by this point, insisted on an X-Ray, which revealed the broken bone. When she left the hospital that night, the same male nurse gave her a low-dose painkiller and told her that she had no real medical problem.

This seems to be a uniquely female brand of medical treatment. To make sure that I wasn't ignoring mistreatment of male patients, I asked men to respond to the same survey questions I'd asked the women.

Only one of the men surveyed said that he had ever been made to feel uncomfortable by a doctor, who made an inappropriate comment about his body.

John Haltiwanger, 27, said by e-mail, "I've never felt invalidated by a doctor, which is definitely linked to the fact I’m a white American male and generally live an incredibly easy life. Men just don’t face the same kind of condescension and mistrust that women do, and it’s unacceptable.”

Other men told me that they'd never even had to think about the question before.

Rita, 49, tells of being denied medication for her pneumonia, but recalls that when her husband pulled a muscle, "they did an entire work-up for his heart.”

Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that she has kidney damage because of a doctor who dismissed her symptoms and refused to refer her to a specialist.

Another woman, 22, went to a female gynecologist who dismissed her chronic yeast infection pain. The doctor insisted that the pain had nothing to do with the patient’s IUD, even though a quick Google search reveals a connection between the two.

But she was persistent, and the doctor finally agreed to take the IUD out. When he did, her symptoms disappeared.

Sarah, 21, developed a severe case of glandular fever after her abortion. Her doctors failed to diagnose her because they assumed that her pain was psychosomatic.

“They thought it was from grief over the abortion. In fact, I was emotionally fine and relieved.”

The consequences of malpractice can be disastrous, even fatal.

Another woman, who is 29 and responded anonymously, said that her gastroenterologist dismissed her stomach pain, telling her she was constipated. Over the next six months, she reluctantly took the constipation medicine and researched her symptoms.

When she returned to the doctor to demand further testing, he laughed at her. But he finally agreed to administer the test, and the results revealed a disease that would have killed her if left untreated.

It took a lengthy appeals process for her insurance company to honor her request to switch doctors.

When Racism and Homophobia Enter The Mix

For some women, homophobia and/or racism add multiple layers to the sexism that permeates medical culture.

When Heather Marten, 39, tried to find a cure for her painful and heavy periods, she was told that her only option was birth control.

“As a butch lesbian, I was very uncomfortable taking this and only did so for a few months.”

When Heather tried to switch doctors, the response was no different. Her female nurse insisted that Heather would change her mind about not wanting children, even though Heather was adamant. Heather was re-prescribed birth control, and this time the hormones exacerbated her anxiety. She stopped taking the medication, and the doctor offered her no other options.

Finally, a third doctor discovered that Heather had ovarian cysts. They are now being monitored, and she is waiting to receive an ablation.

“It is particularly difficult for lesbians and genderqueer individuals to find doctors that are understanding and aware,” Heather wrote. “I know my own body! I shouldn’t have to fight for appropriate treatment.”

And Zara Barrie, 29, said in an interview that doctors repeatedly ask her if she could be pregnant, even after she tells them that she is gay and exclusively has sex with women.

Nubia Fields, 20, finds that it is easier to foster a relationship with doctors who are also black and female. When she broke her leg, “The nurse was black and seemed more maternal. The other nurses -- white males – didn’t really talk to me. I feel there’s a huge difference in the way black women talk to black women and girls. There’s a comfort in seeing someone who is black, and knowing they have had similar experiences to me,” Nubia told me in an e-mail.

Nubia’s friend Steph, who is 18, said that her gynecologist always assumes she's pregnant when she shows up for her appointment.

“It’s either because the doctor’s office isn’t run well, or because I’m young and Puerto Rican,” Steph said. “I think it’s a mix of both.”

Where to Turn?

In some doctor's offices, discrimination sits like a cloud. And women experience it -- whether "it" is something as indefinable as a "weird vibe" or as criminal as the assaults that Mereteh and Marie are trying to move past.

Women who are traumatized by medical professionals do not necessarily have the option of foregoing future treatment. And so the dilemma becomes: How do I avoid the "bad ones"? Does Yelp offer this kind of information? How often do I have to go to the doctor to stay alive? Is a yearly physical really necessary? Women may put their own health at risk out of a desire to avoid the doctor.

Jenna, 21, wants women to know that they have a right to medical care from a doctor who does not make them uncomfortable.

"Now that I'm older and know that I'm entitled to feel comfortable when receiving treatment, I don't hesitate to ask for a female doctor instead," she said.

I learned that doctor abuse is far more common than I'd expected it to be. But it rarely hits the news. Either the case falls flat, as Mereteh’s first did, or there’s never a case at all. The inherent power imbalance between doctor and patient prevents many women from pressing charges. And insurance companies often don’t give patient many options. The easiest thing to do is forget and move on.

But Mereteh is driven to offer help to others who may be at risk of doctor abuse.

“See how the doctor is acting,” she advises. “Is he excited, nervous, demanding? Is he looking at you in a certain way or talking in a certain way?”

Mereteh suspects that her doctor specifically preyed on survivors of sexual assault. She has since gotten in touch with some of the other women he assaulted, and she had discovered that some of them were also survivors.

“He was in a hurry,” she said, more aware of his intentions in hindsight. “He wanted me in the chair.”

Mereteh's primary goal has become to prevent other women from being  abused. She is determined to tell her story so that women who visit a doctor in search of relief don't instead discover more pain.