Gender bias concerns about Medicare

There are those who believe that gender bias is no longer a problem. They see inequality between men and women as an issue that’s been resolved. Sadly, there are many women who do not feel that way and, tellingly, there’s much evidence to the contrary. One recent news story highlighted a glaring example – Medicare costs.

Medicare is Australia’s universal healthcare system, designed to deliver quality medical services at minimal or no cost. It is not a perfect system, and inequities are to be expected here and there. The problem is, there is growing evidence of women bearing the burden of these inequities. Medicare, at least in the eyes of some, has an underlying gender bias.

Could that really be the case? The answer isn’t completely straightforward. For a start, there are obviously some basic physiological differences between males and females. But should that make a difference to medical costs?

National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists president Gino Pecoraro took up the gender bias discussion last month. In an interview with the ABC, Dr Pecoraro cited one example of the potential complicating factors in the debate – ultrasounds.

An ultrasound used to determine whether a woman is pregnant costs more than a basic ultrasound on a man’s scrotum. Dr Pecoraro acknowledged the cost difference could be, in part, attributed to female anatomy being more complicated than male anatomy.

But he believes the difference is more a representation of women’s health coming second to men’s. In other words, gender bias.

“It’s indicative of a whole underinvestment in women’s health,” Dr Pecoraro said. “It starts at the beginning with pregnancy, and goes all the way through to when we’re diagnosing heart attacks because women show different symptoms.”

Gender bias – a lived experience

One clear example was highlighted in the same ABC story. An unfortunate coincidence brought the issue to the attention of school teacher Lisa Evans. Twelve months after Ms Evans was diagnosed with breast cancer, her brother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

This allowed them to compare their somewhat parallel (separated by a year) treatment and recovery journeys. It was through this experience that Ms Evans became aware of glaring cost differences.

For Ms Evans, the journey to full remission cost her $20,000 in total – that’s out of pocket after Medicare claims. But her journey continues. Through gap fees, Ms Evans pays more than $1300 each year for ongoing mammograms, medications and medical appointments.

This, she says, is vastly more than her brother has paid. “He hasn’t paid anything near what I paid,” she said. “I don’t understand why I’m paying. The costs have been debilitating.” Gender bias?

Debilitating as they have been, Ms Evans says she has been able to cover those costs. But what of those who can’t? This is a problem for many Australians, reflective of an imperfect Medicare system. That’s not a very palatable reality. What makes it even less so is that it is more likely to be a problem for women. The gender bias is real for many who rely on Medicare.

What is the solution?

Acknowledging gender bias inequalities such as these is always a good first step. To that end, the federal health department has done so. It has established a National Women’s Health Advisory Council to advise the government on ways to improve women’s and girls’ health.

As part of that charter, the council seeks “to better understand the unique barriers and gender bias women face in Australia’s healthcare system”.

Based on the advice and experiences of Dr Pecoraro and Ms Evans, it has a lot of work to do.

Have you experienced or identified gender bias in your healthcare journey? What examples can you think of? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Is sleeping poorly a gender issue?

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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