x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Assumptions turn a medical appointment into an ordeal

If the authorities want to encourage women to go to the doctor, then medical professionals must earn our trust, writes Anna Zacharias

I stopped going for cervical cancer screening when I moved back to the UAE after university. I was 22 and not afraid of cancer. I was afraid of doctors. More specifically, I was afraid of discussing my cervical health with doctors. I was afraid that because I was a young woman – especially a young, western woman here without family – doctors would judge me; that they would make assumptions about my lifestyle and my health.

I was afraid because of stories I had heard from friends. One had gone to a doctor with a urinary tract infection. The doctor told her she was “having too much fun”, that she probably had a venereal disease and could be pregnant.

A urinary tract infection is not a sexually transmitted disease. It is caused when germs enter the urethra and infect the bladder or kidneys. It can be aggravated by intercourse, but it can also be aggravated by running, heat or diabetes. The doctor hadn’t asked about her sexual history. Assumptions were made based on her age and nationality.

When I saw how she was treated for a common bladder infection, I knew I could not bring myself to discuss cervical health with a strange doctor. Besides, I told myself, I’m young. I’m not at risk. I’ll do it later.

Even ordinary checkups could be embarrassing. Take “Dr Shisha”. I went to Dr Shisha because I had a clogged nose. I was with my mother, who was visiting. He asked if I smoked, a routine question. I told him I had the occasional shisha. I expected a reprimand. Instead, I got a slimy invitation for a date – while he was prodding a camera into my nostril to inspect my nasal mucus.

Then there was the pharmacist who would not sell me wart remover for a blemish on my hand. He said it could leave a small scar that would hinder my prospects of finding a husband.

Another friend went to the doctor for depression. “Of course you’re depressed, you’re not married,” she was told. She had not been concerned about her relationship status until his lecture. 

It seems that women’s lifestyles are under examination instead of our health.

After Dr Shisha and the pharmacist, I vowed not to visit a male doctor again. Instead I visited a gynaecologist for any illness because I knew the doctor would be female.

At my next appointment, I sat in a waiting room surrounded by pregnant women in niqab. I had a sore throat but being there felt like an admission that something was wrong where it shouldn’t be for an unmarried woman. I worried that I would run into someone I knew and assumptions would be made.

I eventually returned for a cervical screening. Even with the respected and respectful female gynaecologist, I was afraid to ask questions or give information. The question for every woman I know is, how much is confidential? And will I be judged?

Young women’s values and behaviour are continuously called into account. Interest ranges from the benign (“Why are you not married yet?”) to malign propositions.

I completed high school at a segregated school in Sharjah. When we reached the chapter on reproductive organs, the teacher got nervous. We were a group of 16 girls, aged 15 to 18, from a range of backgrounds.

Even with a group of women about to enter university, the teacher struggled to define terminology. In retrospect, she surely knew the answers but was unsure what information she could give us.

When we grew up, we did not know what information we could give our doctors. Doctors have urged women to undertake regular cervical screenings. This will save lives.

To support this, the authorities should be clear about what is expected from doctors and patients. Fortunately, there are places that treat women respectfully but women must rely on recommendations from friends. Too often it is gender, not treatment, that matters most to health care professionals.

A single friend was recently admitted to an Umm Al Quwain hospital after a car crash. She had cuts on her head. The doctor asked if she was married and how many children she had. When she said she had never married or had children, he asked how many abortions she had undergone. He assumed that because of her nationality, she had had many boyfriends and pregnancies. She left the hospital more shaken than when she arrived.

Such stories are common. If the authorities want to encourage women to go to the doctor, then medical professionals must earn our trust.

azacharias@thenational.ae