Book Review – Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick by Maya Dusenbery

I wasn’t planning on doing a dedicated book review post for this book – I just fancied reading it. After the first 3 pages I was already frustrated and angry enough that I was ready to throw the book across the room; not because it’s poorly written, far from it, it’s the contents of the pages that annoyed me so much. I hope that this post encourages some of you to read this book, it covers a topic I knew nothing about to begin with, and does a brilliant job of making a complex web of scientific research projects – reasons behind them, the errors they contain, and the source of the funding that enabled them to happen – accessible and easy to digest. Get Maya Dusenbery’s Doing Harm, here.

What the publisher says

Editor of the award-winning site Feministing.com, Maya Dusenbery brings together scientific and sociological research, interviews with doctors and researchers, and personal stories from women across the country to provide the first comprehensive, accessible look at how sexism in medicine harms women today.

In Doing Harm, Dusenbery explores the deep, systemic problems that underlie women’s experiences of feeling dismissed by the medical system. Women have been discharged from the emergency room mid-heart attack with a prescription for anti-anxiety meds, while others with autoimmune diseases have been labeled “chronic complainers” for years before being properly diagnosed. Women with endometriosis have been told they are just overreacting to “normal” menstrual cramps, while still others have “contested” illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia that, dogged by psychosomatic suspicions, have yet to be fully accepted as “real” diseases by the whole of the profession.

An eye-opening read for patients and health care providers alike, Doing Harm shows how women suffer because the medical community knows relatively less about their diseases and bodies and too often doesn’t trust their reports of their symptoms. The research community has neglected conditions that disproportionately affect women and paid little attention to biological differences between the sexes in everything from drug metabolism to the disease factors–even the symptoms of a heart attack. Meanwhile, a long history of viewing women as especially prone to “hysteria” reverberates to the present day, leaving women battling against a stereotype that they’re hypochondriacs whose ailments are likely to be “all in their heads.”

Offering a clear-eyed explanation of the root causes of this insidious and entrenched bias and laying out its sometimes catastrophic consequences, Doing Harm is a rallying wake-up call that will change the way we look at health care for women.

What the critics say

“Maya Dusenbery brings new life to one of the most urgent yet under-discussed feminist issues of our time. Anyone who cares about women’s health needs to read this book.” (Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object: A Memoir)

“In this groundbreaking book, Dusenbery shows how the same forces that hold women back in society more broadly lead to subpar medical care and inadequate attention to health issues that impact women. Every doctor, scientist, and health care provider and researcher should read this book. And so should every woman.” (Jill Filipovic, author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness)

“Maya Dusenbery’s exhaustively researched book is equal parts infuriating and energizing. No woman will see the medical establishment and – perhaps even more profound – her own body the same way after reading it. In a just world, it would be required reading in medical schools from this day forward.” (Courtney E. Martin, author of The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream.

My thoughts

I started this book on a flight to Brussels during my week off – and almost immediately starting to quote bits of it to my friend who was sat next to me, “Did you know that in American medical faculties there’s a gender pay gap of $20,000?”, “Oh my God, you know that aspirin study that led to doctors advising people over the age of 50 to take an aspirin a day to lower the risk of heart attacks? THE STUDY WAS ONLY DONE ON MEN INITIALLY! Then, when there was another study done on women, the results were not the same, yet the advice has stayed constant!”, “HOLY SHIT, WOMEN ARE 50-75% MORE LIKELY THAN MEN TO HAVE ADVERSE REACTIONS TO DRUGS BECAUSE THE MAJORITY OF DRUGS HAVE ONLY BEEN TESTED ON MEN!!”

You can imagine how bad the shouting and swearing got as I progressed through the book.

The book itself is split into three parts; ‘Part 1 – Overlooked and Dismissed: A Systemic Problem’, ‘Part 2 – Invisible Women in a ‘Male Model’ System’, and ‘Part 3 – Neglected Diseases: The Disorders Formerly Known as Hysteria’, and when I read the contents I was immediately intrigued by Part 1 over the other 2. After reading, I think I enjoyed that section the most, but Parts 2 and 3 were the areas that cemented my anger – they were the areas where Dusenbery was able to really drill down into the research; they provided the ammunition to back up the anger she’d fuelled in Part 1.

Honestly, towards the middle of Part 2 I was starting to feel pretty hopeless; how on Earth could we have built a medical system on a foundation of research that was conducted almost entirely on male participants? Even down to the fact that lab research has been found to be conducted on mainly male rats and mice, not female (or God forbid, and equal split)?! Urgggghhh. Anyway, the most I read, the more frustrated I got – until that frustration turned to wanting to do something about the issue of bias in medical research.
I hope that this book stays with me and influences the work that I do over the course of my career; I want to remain in the clinical trials methodology field after my PhD is complete, and bearing the issues described by Dusenbery in mind will mean I can contribute at least in some small part, to alleviating these problems.

Would I recommend it?

10000000% yes. Read it, gift it, take it to medical appointments with you, fold the corners of pages that contain topics that infuriate you, and please, please, spread awareness of the fact that medical research has, and continues to fail women.

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