Women suffer when medicine focuses on men, emergency physician writes in new book.
Alyson McGregor RES’07, MD, MA, was just finishing her residency at The Warren Alpert Medical School when a major medical finding broke: the classic symptoms associated with heart attacks, shooting pain down the left arm and crushing pressure on the chest, were in fact typical only of men.
In contrast, women suffering heart attacks were likely to report subtle symptoms, like fatigue, upset stomach, and shortness of breath. The findings helped explain why women were more likely than men to die from heart attacks and suffer undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.
“We physicians were taught that men’s symptoms were the standard for both men and women,” says McGregor, an associate professor of emergency medicine and emergency physician at Rhode Island Hospital. “It turned out that didn’t fit women’s experiences.”
The findings spurred McGregor to consider other ways that inattention to biological sex difference might be impacting the health care women receive. “I thought, ‘If women are different in this way, why? And how are they different from men in other ways?’” she says.
McGregor cofounded the Division of Sex and Gender in Emergency Medicine at Brown and Lifespan to answer these questions. Since its inception in 2014, the division has helped to generate more than 100 peer-reviewed publications on a vast range of medical conditions—from infection to cancer to stroke—and trained numerous medical residents through elective rotations and a two-year fellowship designed to develop new leaders in the field.
Most recently, McGregor turned her sights to educating the general public about the difference that sex makes in health care. Her new book, Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health and What We Can Do about It, gives an accessible account of health care disparities that continue to affect women, with an eye toward empowering women to fight medical biases when they encounter them.
“I try to offer specific instructions for women on how to get the most out of their care and how to advocate for themselves,” McGregor says.
Following the book’s debut, McGregor discussed the root causes for the gap between men’s and women’s care and the ways that Sex Matters extends her work as an educator and physician.
Read the Q&A with McGregor here.