By Chloe Olivia Sladden
Medical Herstory is a not-for-profit organisation, which deals with medical sexism, shame, and stigma. It was founded in 2019 and it is run by founder Tori Grace Ford, who initially started Medical Herstory as a personal (since turned global) project. In a society where misogyny and sexism are still looming in health and medicine, Medical Herstory is the heroic lionhearted platform we all need right now. The non-profit organisation strives to combat gender equality for women in medical care, education, and practise. It was a result of Tori sharing her own lived experience with chronic yeast infections for her student newspaper at school.
Tori has one favourite line of hers that she has heard that inspired her to write the story, which was when a doctor told her “some people get colds, some people get chronic yeast infections” and was subsequently prescribed “quite trivial or Victorian” solutions. This led Tori to a point where she felt she “was just done with the medical system. I felt I wasn’t being believed. We know illness affects people in a lot of different ways and those ways were not getting addressed”.
“I went on to share my story about the emotional turmoil that had been going on, how I kept sharing my story and no one was listening, and I wanted to reclaim my voice. So, I went on to write it, not knowing if anyone would pay attention to it, and it went on to make the front page and get a lot of attention, which was terrifying and awesome at the same time” reveals Tori.
The response she received from sharing her story, including the discomfort and medical dismissal of her condition, as she was not taken seriously as a woman who knew something was not right with her body and tried to seek out the health care and respect she was entitled to. “What I heard from other people wasn’t any kind of shame or disgust that I was afraid of, it was other women and gender diverse people saying me too”, I’ve had similar experiences, I’ve never shared these, I’ve never felt comfortable to talk about, thank you so much for starting the conversation. And I knew that we didn’t have a centralized platform to share these stories, and that’s why I created one.”
Once she saw the interest and requests to get involved with her project, where important female medical stories, information and experiences can receive a public platform, Tori decided to expand Medical Herstory. “This fall, we did our first recruitment cycle, we got 40 amazing volunteers and then in this winter, we got up to 70 and now in this cycle, we’re probably going to get to a 100 across 24 universities in 7 countries (such as Canada, UK, US, Australia, Japan, Sweden and South Africa. It shows how passionate people are about this issue around the world, and unfortunately how much gender bias is in medicine and how much work there is to do. It’s amazing having such diverse perspectives coming to the table and contributing equally.”
Gender bias is one of the key things that Medical Herstory is trying to tackle, specifically for women who are not believed, not taken seriously and not given accurate, quality, or respectful medical care and treatment. Women do not feel science and medicine are “objective, neutral spaces” where they are concerned. This is because, as Tori suggests “systems of sexism, racism, shame, and stigma infiltrate health care systems and impact the care that patients receive. So, the first step in solving the problem is acknowledging and unfortunately some people aren’t aware this is even a problem until they’re facing it or someone they care about is.”
Examples of gender bias for women is when medical conditions are dismissed because practitioners assume something due to their patient’s gender. This includes “Ovarian Cancer in women being dismissed as menstrual cramps and being told to go home, queer experiences often being erased when doctors assume patients have boyfriends and being denied STI testing, stories of how common conditions that disproportionately affect women/those assigned female at birth are often overlooked as all being in women’s heads.”, says Tori.
Along with other stories of gender inequality such as “stories from people living with endometriosis and waiting ten years to get a diagnosis or to be believed and people’s stories of pregnancy during the pandemic and how they did not get adequate care.” all of this contributes to why something like Medical Herstory is absolutely vital.
There are many levels that Medical Herstory works on, the societal, educational, and patient levels. For example, the societal level is about “how sexism and stigma are pervasive” and how patients who seek out health care may be marginalised and then be “less likely to be believed and taken seriously”. This comes as a result of a lack of knowledge doctors have on certain topics, and a lack of discussions in how they “can perpetrate bias and harm", especially if female medical conditions are not covered in medical classes or places of work.
The lack of knowledge or discussion regarding female health and experiences in the medical industry can be because the research is simply not out there. Tori reports that “in the UK, it makes up about 2% of research funds that go into women/assigned female at birth sexual and reproductive health. Even if a doctor does believe you and wants to help you, which I think most doctors do, they simply lack the resources, the treatment, the answers, or awareness to be able to do so”, which is something Tori believes needs to change.