Ableism in healthcare: When the Declaration of Geneva falls by the wayside.
Welcome to Women’s Health Week — a week where we shine a light on not just the health issues women face but the many factors that contribute to how women experience healthcare and the impact that has.
The Declaration of Geneva is a statement of ethical principles for medical doctors to adhere to when carrying out their duties as medical professionals. One of the lines of this oath that doctors take alongside the Hippocratic Oath reads:
I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient.
There are many barriers women with disabilities face when seeking healthcare, such as a lack of accessibility to essential services and equipment. unseen barriers such as negative attitudes from medical professionals often impact our experiences when we do access healthcare.
While writing this article, I was talking to a friend about experiences of ableism in healthcare and recalled a recent incident in which I was advised by a nurse I was having an ultrasound the next day. When asked what for, I was told to ask the doctor when they came in next. A specialist visited me to discuss the reason for my admission, and when I asked if they knew the reason for the ultrasound, he looked at my records and advised, “It’s for the growth in your uterus.” This was news to me. No one had bothered to tell me they had found a growth during my procedure. Luckily, it was nothing, and while it could be excused as just being forgotten to be communicated, this was only the most recent incident of many incidents that all add up to a disabled body not being as worthy as a non-disabled one.
When I started on the contraceptive pill, my GP advised me I could skip the sugar pills to skip my period. Fast forward 15 years or so, and I visit another GP to talk about switching to another birth control method and the need to get a pap smear. When the GP asked me when I last had my period, I told her, and she looked horrified. I was then informed it was necessary to have my period every so often to ensure I didn’t get cancer. Again, this was news to me as my original GP failed to tell me this important piece of information.
I’ve had many instances where I’ve needed to seek out a specialist and have ones recommended by my women friends who couldn’t speak highly enough of them. One of these specialists, whom I was told I would love because he was so gentle and lovely, had diagnosed me within less than a minute in their room and followed without taking a beat and continuing to look at their screen with “most women in a wheelchair your age go for an electric wheelchair.” I asked if there was anything else I needed to do to follow up on the issue I had been referred to him for and was told no and shown the door.
The other specialist I was told was lovely told me they could do nothing for my broken leg because of “your congenital osteoporosis.” At 35, as you can guess, this was, again, news to me. When I asked how to prevent a fracture from happening again, I was advised there was nothing that could be done. This came up in a conversation with my GP a few months later, and I was quickly advised that the advice was incorrect. I was referred to an endocrinologist for treatment, and eight years later, I’ve been advised my osteoporosis is at a level at which the treatment can now be paused.
There are many other instances where my care has been affected due to unconscious bias about disability and more blatant ableism, which I’ve written about here. I ask any medical professionals reading this to share with their fellow medical professionals, and the next time you are treating a person with a disability, take a moment to ask yourself if you are providing treatment based on assumptions about disability or about the person in front of you coming to you for help.
If you’re a woman with a disability, what has been your experience of ableism in healthcare?