ABU DHABI // Cultural and religious sensitivities still keep women from seeking medical advice from specialised male doctors, physicians say.
Many avoid invasive examinations in the absence of a female gynaecologist or radiologist.
But religious officials and doctors are urging women not to worry about gender when it comes to health matters.
"Most patients, they want to see a female gynaecologist, a female radiologist or a female surgeon," said Dr Saad Ghazal-Aswad, the former senior consultant in the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Tawam Hospital.
"The problem is that in the UAE, about 90 per cent of radiologists are male and male surgeons outweigh women four to one.
"They are a rarity - especially for female breast surgeons."
Dr Ghazal-Aswad said that of his patients, between 5 and 10 per cent said they would not return for treatment if they could not see a female specialist.
A study into women's choices of obstetrician and gynaecologist in the UAE, published in a Scandinavian journal, found that of 508 patients attending the obstetrics and gynaecologic services of Al Ain Hospital, 439 - 86.4 per cent - preferred female physicians. Reasons given included privacy, religious and cultural beliefs.
An American Palestinian cited similar reasons for preferring a female doctor. She has made repeated trips to NMC Hospital over the years searching for one. "I actually go home if I don't find a female gynaecologist available," she said.
Dr Karim Elmasry, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology at Mafraq Hospital, also said some female patients were uncomfortable seeing a male doctor, especially if their husband was present.
"I cannot say it is not an issue," he said, and cultural attitudes were part of the problem.
But Dr Ghazal-Aswad said it was slowly changing. "More and more they want to see an expert in the field, regardless of gender," he said.
While he believes women should overlook gender when seeking medical help, he said patients had the right to see a female specialist if they preferred, and that hospitals should offer more options.
"The patient should have the right to choose," he said.
Dr Elmasry said it was important only that the patient was comfortable, regardless of the gender of her doctor. "It is a confidence-building measure," he said. "You explain to them what you are doing and what you are about to do in order for the patient to know what to expect.
"Quite often if you take the time with a patient and get them to understand then they are often fine with you.
"The priority is getting the best care possible."
Dr Bachar Abduh, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist at Al Noor Hospital on Airport Road said communication was vital.
"I try to help the female patients in every way, and tell them what I want to do, what she needs to do," he said. "If she is OK with me, we will do an ultrasound.
"She has the full right to go to the doctor she wants. I try to convince her we are here to help. When they know you are here to help, 90 per cent come out happy and do not go to the female doctor."
He said ultrasounds allowed for less invasive examinations, leading to more women accepting treatment from male doctors.
Those who usually preferred a female were Asian Muslims, and some Arabs, he said.
Dr Abduh said education was the key to resolving the issue and stressed the importance of seeking out a qualified physician, rather than choosing by gender.
"Look for the perfect doctor, skilled and honest," he said. "This is not a business. If you do not find someone you are comfortable with, go find another."
Dr Ahmed Al Moosa, first preacher at the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Awqaf, said Islam did not constrain women.
"There is no objection at all for her to go to the male gynaecologist," he said. "A woman can go to any doctor she feels comfortable with and who is better."