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Do Doctors Take Women's Pain Less Seriously Than Men's?

Is there a gender gap when it comes to the treatment of pain?

Nearly 15 years ago, a University of Maryland study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain,” concluded that men and women experience pain differently — with women experiencing more severe pain, more frequently and for longer. The study also concluded that women are more likely to be treated “less aggressively” for their pain symptoms, and have them characterized as emotional or psychological in nature.

Joe Fassler experienced this first-hand, when his wife suffered an ovarian torsion. Fassler tells Here & Now’s Robin Young doctors dismissed and ignored his wife’s pain, while almost failing to diagnose her potentially life threatening condition altogether.

Interview Highlights: Joe Fassler

On everything grinding to a halt once they arrived to the hospital

“As soon as we got there to the hospital, there was a line of gurneys outside the door, so we weren’t even inside the ER itself, we were sort of out in the hall and time just seemed to stop. I was doing all I could to flag the nurses, try to find a doctor, but people were dismissive. And at the time, you know, I had no idea what was happening. We didn’t know if it was going to pass in a second, if it was something life threatening. It was hard to know how insistent to be, and I tried my best, but all the cues we were getting from the professionals were ‘Slow down. It’s not a big deal. We’ll get to you.’”

On what the doctor determined was wrong with his wife without even examining her

“[He] determined that it’s kidney stones, but we only figured that out later. He didn’t say anything to us, he never introduced himself as the doctor. We only know he thought that because of what he prescribed, which was a CT scan and a particular kind of morphine that’s typically used in that case, but we didn’t know we’d been seen. And so at least at that point, about two hours in, she got pain medication for the first time, but then we were just left to wait for another three or four hours before anything happened.”

What has the hospital said to you since then?

“Actually, nothing. I’m sort of surprised by that. There’s been no outreach on their part. We actually still are holding on to the survey of ‘how did we do.’ I think we’ve been delaying it. It’s been painful to go back and fill that out. So we actually haven’t filed anything formally with the hospital. We would like to of course, you know, go through the official channel and say ‘We were very unhappy with the care.’ But people have been tweeting at them in response to the story. The name of the hospital is all over the internet, so I’d be surprised if they weren’t aware of the story, although it’s certainly possible. But I haven’t heard anything.”

Do you think you will take action against the hospital?

“We certainly thought about that. And, you know, I’m a writer and ultimately that seemed like the best way, but I did find it interesting that we talked to a lawyer, not really because we wanted to sue them – in fact, we really didn’t – but as a way of sort of getting them to pay attention in a language that they understand. You know, I wonder if we hit a little bit of cultural bias and gender bias in that case, because the lawyer said ‘Well, in order for there to be some sort of malpractice suit, you have to be able to prove permanent lasting damage.’ And he didn’t consider this to fall under that, which I found very strange. I really do think we would have had a better case if she had slipped and fallen and broken her ankle.”


  • Joe Fassler, author of “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously.” He tweets @joefassler.

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