A group of surgeon interns is studying fetal development at different stages of pregnancy. Health education concept. Medical students in the classroom with images of ultrasound.

A Textbook Example of Gender Disparities

To understand the disparity in quality of healthcare provided to men and women, researchers looked at just what's being taught in medical schools.


Researchers have long known that patients experience gender disparities in healthcare, and with the help of a new study, we now know more about why this is the case. By investigating 16 Canadian medical school curriculums, the study highlighted how a lack of education on women’s health is impacting the quality of healthcare that women receive.

The study was led by researchers at the University Health Network and published in BMC Medical Education.

Gender disparities in healthcare

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the doctor-patient relationship is patient empowerment. This is a term we don’t hear very often, but which refers to a patient’s ability to feel connected to and included in the decision-making process surrounding their health.

Patient empowerment is only possible when both the patient and physician are well-versed in the different factors contributing to one’s overall health. Importantly, this includes the social determinants of health: factors such as education, access to reproductive healthcare, and stability in the family and home.

Many studies have shown that there is a disparity in the quality of healthcare provided to men and women. In addition to issues surrounding access, there have also been studies to show that one of the largest barriers reported by women is a lack of communication from their healthcare providers, as well as a lack of validation of their concerns.

Interestingly, this is true on a global level, with studies from North America, South America, and Iran reporting the same results. Some experts believe that this is due to ignorance of women’s health concerns in the healthcare field.  Physicians who were surveyed also reported that they felt their training did not sufficiently expose them to women’s health-related concerns.

Where are the gaps in women’s healthcare?

In order to amend the issue of gender disparities in healthcare, we must start at the beginning. This means understanding where the gaps are in medical school curriculums.

To learn more, a team at the University Health Network investigated women’s health in medical education. Their idea was that if they could identify the gaps in the curriculum, then steps could be taken to fill these gaps and ensure that all patients could receive the same quality of healthcare.

The study was led by Natalie N. Anderson and Anna R. Gagliardi at Toronto General Hospital. Their research specializes in identifying opportunities for person-centered care, especially for women, as well as using patient-centered data to maximize the implementation of government guidelines.

In this study, the researchers analyzed women’s health in the curriculums of 16 Canadian medical schools.

Their results showed that although the women’s health was mentioned in the context of social determinants of health, there was very little mention of women’s health on its own, or sex and gender in the context of healthcare. Furthermore, when women’s health was mentioned, it was more in passing than in a deliberate effort to improve the quality of healthcare received by women.

Some schools had curriculums with zero mentions of women’s health, while the maximum percentage of mentions was 37.5%. Most importantly, women’s health was most often discussed in the context of social determinants of health, yet mentions of sex and gender and their impact on women’s health outcomes were few and far between.

In fact, only 4% of curriculums mentioned the differences between sex, gender, and gender identity.

Teaching future practitioners about women’s health is key

Overall, the study revealed that although women’s reproductive health or sex-related conditions are discussed in medical school curriculums, students are still underexposed to women’s healthcare concerns and the disparities in healthcare access.

The researchers say that although prior studies have looked at disparities faced by women in the healthcare field — for example, harassment and wage gaps — the impact of healthcare disparities on the patient end is still an understudied topic.

This study stands out from other similar studies according to these researchers because of their focus on a broader view on what constitutes women’s health. Education on female-specific medical concerns is good, but can be improved by viewing women’s health as both a biological and social issue.

According to the researchers, future medical school curriculums can be improved by including a wide range of health conditions, but also considering the everyday social issues that women face. This is where knowledge on the social determinants of health becomes invaluable.

When healthcare is seen as biological care alone, there is often a very narrow viewpoint that may harm the patient more than help them. Exposing future practitioners to women’s health as a broad issue as early as possible in their education is key.

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Salma is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto, where she also completed her MSc and HBSc. She is passionate about equity, accessibility and transparency in science, and is excited about helping highlight Canadian research!