TNM Women’s Health Month is brought to you by Kauvery Hospital.
With India being among the lowest ranked nations in terms of gender-equity, poor access to healthcare for women is not surprising. Even though women shoulder most of the burden in ensuring better health of our families - for instance, a vast majority of organ donors in India are women - they are likely to be far more vulnerable to illnesses compared to men. They are primary caregivers, but their own symptoms and illnesses are ignored or downplayed.
There are systemic deficiencies in medical research which have failed women. For instance, women suffering from endometriosis continue to face delayed diagnosis, ineffective treatment, and painful side-effects because there is simply not enough research. The gender-bias also extends into our hospitals and homes, where a woman’s health is de-prioritised over others’. Dr Aravindan Selvaraj, Executive Director, Kauvery Hospital in Chennai, has seen this happen throughout his 30-year-long career. “Women’s health has been constantly ignored,” he accepts.
“It comes with our tradition. If a husband or son falls sick, the mother takes them to the hospital and stays with them till the end, for months or years. But when the women fall sick, we see often that they don’t even come in for a check-up, and the men are not forthcoming in their support,” Dr Aravindan says, “This is the whole social system we have now. The mother not only has to take care of the home, but also the health of the husband, the children, and the husband’s parents, and if she is working, her career too – where is the time for her?”
Dr Aravindan has seen gender-bias play out a lot more in his practice, since he is the Chief Orthopaedic Surgeon at the hospital and several women come in with bone-related ailments. During menopause, the reducing estrogen stimulation in the body leads to osteoporosis. “It can be treated very simply, and yet, women suffer more than they should,” he says.
He talks about a recent case to illustrate that. The woman is in her 70s, and her husband in his 80s. He had developed osteoporosis and suffered a hip fracture. “She was around for his treatment throughout. For over a year she had been visiting the hospital for him. Every time she would come, I would ask her to get a check-up done, but she wouldn’t,” the doctor says, pointing out that she was post-menopausal, had low muscle mass (she was lean and thin) and a vegetarian – a high-risk category for developing osteoporosis. “I even suggested simple medicines without tests to start treatment – but she refused. One year later, she came to me with an osteoporotic hip fracture,” he says.
So why does this happen? “The problem is systemic, and we have to deal with them in our homes and at our hospitals,” Dr Aravindan explains.
Empowering women, responsible men
“Majority of the workforce in hospitals are women, and yet we don’t have enough focus on women’s health – you know why?” he asks, “Because there aren’t enough of them in senior positions.” Explaining it as a mea culpa moment for him, he says that at his own hospital, while 70% of the workforce is women, only 10% are in management. “It is only when more women become decision-makers that our attitudes towards women’s health will also start changing, and that is what we want to achieve here at our hospital,” he says.
Moreover, men need to step up and share the burden of caregiving. “I have seen that men sometimes don’t even turn up, or are simply too impatient with the women’s illnesses. They are obligated to be there and be helpful,” Dr Aravindan says.
Men also need to have more conversations at home about women’s health. “Women are sometimes shy to discuss their menstrual health or breast-related ailments with even their husbands. There should be no stigma around it at home,” he says.
An empathetic approach to healthcare will be imperative to ensuring women get the healthcare they deserve. Women often don’t come in for an elective surgery because they don’t want to upset the schedules of their husbands or sons. “As hospitals, we must give extended home services to women at a reasonable price, so they don’t have to depend on their family for their health,” Dr Aravindan says, adding that such services have to be provided with empathy.
Doctors, too, have to engage with the family more. “They have to make the effort to tell women that they have to take care of their own health, too. We have to instil the confidence in women that as health care providers, we can take care of them, they don’t need their families around all the time.”
More conversations on this will help change mindsets, and eventually policies too. Towards this, The News Minute and doctors of Kauvery Hospital will embark on a month-long journey to talk more about women’s health, how men can support women and what the role of the healthcare industry should be in ensuring women get the healthcare they deserve. Watch this space for more.
This series was produced by TNM Marquee in association with Kauvery Hospital.