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.

Book Review – Somebody I Used to Know: A Memoir by Wendy Mitchell

Last year I read a lot of books; I averaged a book a week, and I definitely saw an improvement in my writing. So far this year, I’ve been doing alllll the writing, and comparatively little reading, and I can feel my writing abilities slipping. My last book review was published last November, so I figured it was time to get reading again. This time I went for something a bit heavier than my previous popular science books, because *gasp* it’s one that doesn’t just explain science, it actually makes the science and research that many of us do every day, much more human. Wendy Mitchell’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ came out early last month, and I sped through it in a matter of days, get it here.

What the publisher says

What do you lose when you lose your memories? What do you value when this loss reframes how you’ve lived, and how you will live in the future? How do you conceive of love when you can no longer recognise those who are supposed to mean the most to you?

When she was diagnosed with dementia at the age of fifty-eight, Wendy Mitchell was confronted with the most profound questions about life and identity. All at once, she had to say goodbye to the woman she used to be. Her demanding career in the NHS, her ability to drive, cook and run – the various shades of her independence – were suddenly gone.

Philosophical, profoundly moving, insightful and ultimately full of hope, Somebody I Used to Know is both a heart-rending tribute to the woman Wendy once was, and a brave affirmation of the woman dementia has seen her become.

What the critics say

“A brave and illuminating journey inside the mind, heart, and life of young-onset Alzheimer’s disease.” (Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of Still Alice)

“Nothing is more frightening than dementia, says Wendy – and yet, every day, she chooses to face her fears head on. By sharing her story Wendy challenges assumptions and ignorance about dementia. Read this amazing book. It will change a lot of people’s minds about what it means to have the disease” (Professor Pat Sikes, University of Sheffield)

“A lucid, candid and gallant portrayal of what the early stages of dementia feel like … This memoir, with its humour and its sense of resilience, demonstrates how the diagnosis of dementia is not a clear line that a person crosses; they are no different than they were the day before” – (Nicci Gerrard, Observer) (Note – this piece, also written by Nicci Gerrard for the Observer provides a really lovely picture of Wendy that makes the book all the more emotional).

My thoughts

I’ve followed Wendy Mitchell on Twitter for a long time (here if you don’t follow her already!), and I’ve also been eading her blog for over a year (again, here if you haven’t checked it out already), so when she announced that she was writing a book I preordered straight away. Wendy is very involved with research; as the book tells you, she no longer ‘works’ – I say that reluctantly, meaning she doesn’t work in her previous NHS role, but she’s an absolute trooper when it comes to supporting researchers, educating early career nurses, explaining what it’s like to live with dementia to businesses, members of the public.. the list really does go on.

Honestly, I expected the book to be a sort of expanded version of her blog. I expected snippets of her every day, stories of her daughters growing up, and maybe the odd look back on diagnosis etc. What I actually got was Wendy Mitchell’s character, habits, and most poignant memories all wrapped in a book that genuinely made me feel like I was getting to know her, her daughters Gemma and Sarah, and even Billy the cat.
I very rarely read books that enable me to really get to know the characters within them, but once I’d finished reading Somebody I Used to Know, I genuinely felt like I’d had a conversation with Wendy over a cup of her beloved Yorkshire tea (side note – Yorkshire tea is the best tea, she’s absolutely right). Parts of the book made me want to cry, parts of it made me feel anger and frustration similar to what I expect Wendy’s family and friends must have felt when she was diagnosed, but the overarching feeling I had throughout the entire book was hope. Wendy is inspirational, at no point does she give up; she’s a problem solver – she just figures it out and gets on with it. Even as I was fighting back tears I found myself trying to think how I’d ‘get around’ dementia if I was her.

This book is not only a brilliant reference point for people who have a close connection to those living with dementia (whether that’s a family/friend, or contact within their working life), it’s a really good way to take the fear out of dementia generally. Dementia is a disease so terrifying and mysterious that many of us avoid thinking or talking about it entirely, but Wendy’s perspective and positive attitude made me rethink my views on how I might cope with living with dementia. She makes it very clear that dementia is not simply the end stage, it’s a disease with a start, middle and end just like any other – and it’s completely reasonable to live a happy and independent life with dementia.

Would I recommend it?

Part of me wants to be very enthusiastic and shout ‘YES PLEASE READ THIS BOOK’, but I’m hesitant to. This hesitation is itself hesitant because it is a brilliant book… let me explain. I don’t have any relatives that are living with dementia right now, in the past I have had, and this book provided me with a chance to look back on my memories with that person fondly. I think this book should be read by people that have contact with people living with dementia, but I know that the emotion required to get through it could be draining for people with close friends/family living with the condition. Put simply, I’d recommend it, but with an emotional warning – read this when you feel like you’re in a good place to do so, sometimes it’s important to be selfish and look after your own mental health, first.

Book Review – Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini

A while ago I posted about the science books that I think everyone should read – but I read a lot so that list of books has probably changed by now. In recent months I’ve seen a lot of scientists posting on various social media sites looking for reading recommendations, or giving their thoughts on what they’ve read recently. I figured I would add in some popular science book reviews into my blog in an effort to provide some more up to date reading recommendations. First up is, ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story’ by Angela Saini.

What the publisher says

From intelligence to emotion, for centuries science has told us that men and women are fundamentally different. But this is not the whole story.
Shedding light on controversial research and investigating the ferocious gender wars in biology, psychology and anthropology, Angela Saini takes listeners on an eye-opening journey to uncover how women are being rediscovered. She explores what these revelations mean for us as individuals and as a society, revealing an alternative view of science in which women are included rather than excluded.

What the critics say

“Angela Saini has written a powerful, compelling and much needed account that challenges deeply rooted preconceptions about sex differences – some blatant misogyny, others buried in thousands of years patriarchy. Inferior shows that both are fundamentally flawed, and beautifully illustrates how science is just beginning to tackle this staggering imbalance.” (Adam Rutherford, author of Creation)

“An immensely readable and compelling book, providing up to date and evidence-based ammunition for readers who want to rebuff tired myths stereotyping men and women’s brains and bodies.” (Professor Athene Donald)

“This is an important book, beautifully written, and with compelling narratives and hard evidence researched through the lenses of anthropology, evolutionary history, psychology, and neuroscience. The evidence for unconscious bias is undisputed – so no matter what you think you think about gender and equality – read this book.” (Aarathi Prasad, author of Like a Virgin)

My thoughts

I listened to this book as an audiobook via Audible – I have a monthly membership that allows me to download 2 books a month; I always use these 2 credits for non-fiction, I prefer reading fiction and listening to non-fiction. Overall, I enjoyed listening to this book, but I did find that there were bits of it that were flawed.

I really enjoyed the parts of the book that were dedicated to sex differences in the brain. This is an area that I’ve always thought was simply bullshit science, but there are talented researchers working on this stuff who believe that there are fundamental differences between male and female brains. To clarify, I still maintain that this is bullshit science, but now I have a whole chapter of examples of poor quality research design to back up my thoughts. I found the final chapter very interesting too; it looked at multiple theories that aim to explain the function of the menopause.

The way that information is presented throughout this book is systematic, each chapter taking on a different concept and presenting, in detail, the research on each side of the argument. What I really liked though, was that unlike lots of other popular science books, this didn’t end with a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘well there are arguments on both sides’. Instead it made a clear statement: “There is no biological commandment that says women are natural homemakers and unnatural hunters, or that hands-on fathers are breaking some eternal code of the sexes.”

My main problem with the book was that I’m not sure how much of an impact it will have; people who are drawn to read it are likely to have the same perspective as the author, and those who believe that women are inferior to men would probably take one look at the front cover of the book, and happily skip over it. That said, maybe the book’s aim isn’t to change minds, maybe it’s just to give women, and their allies, clear evidence for future arguments.

Would I recommend it?

On audiobook, yes. I don’t think I’d have got as much out of the book if I’d read it rather than listened to it – largely because there were some parts of the text that I felt went on for too long to drive the point home that women are not inferior to men. Saying that though, I went into this book as a feminist, I am absolutely certain that women are not inferior to men; this book didn’t have to change my mind, but it did give me some good ammunition for future clashes with misogynists.

Still stuck for science book recommendations? Alice who runs the ‘Mindful of Science’ blog recently uploaded the first in a series of Youtube videos going through her science bookshelf – take a look here.