There is now widespread understanding that nurses and other healthcare professionals need to be adaptive and responsive, especially when addressing the differing health needs of male and female patients.
Many imagine that the role of the nurse is to treat all patients equally. According to the American Declaration of Rights: “All persons are equal before the law and have the rights and duties established in this Declaration, without distinction as to race, sex, language, creed or any other factor.” In healthcare terms, this means that when a nurse has a group of patients in their care, they should be given access to the same resources or opportunities, and the same level of compassionate care. However, nurses should not treat everyone the same.
The importance of patient-centered care
Nurses need to provide ‘equity’ of healthcare. This term recognizes that every patient is an individual and deserves to have their own personal circumstances and needs met. For example, people can feel pain at different levels and respond to ill health in their own distinct way. This is why patient-centered care is such an important principle of modern nursing, as well as health and social care in general.
In addition to every patient deserving holistic treatment as an individual, nurses must note that there are important differences related to the sex of the patient. Conventional medicine has historically, and continues to be, based upon the body of an ‘average’ male. What this means is that many treatments and dosages are simply not suitable for most of the population and need to be adjusted on an ad-hoc basis in order to work. This most significantly affects women, who tend to require specific, tailored combinations of drugs in order to complement their hormonal composition and physiology.
In addition to this, conventional medicine has been primarily focused on treating and recognizing symptoms more commonly experienced by men and women while symptoms particular to women have been unrecognized and unstudied. A significant example of this is endometriosis, which is often left undiagnosed for many years because GPs tend to write off women’s symptoms as ‘normal period pain’ without understanding what kind of pain is ‘normal’ or that women experience periods differently.
Awareness of the need to particularize care for women is growing but not fast enough and more education and advocacy is needed to equalize healthcare efficacy. When observing a list of differentiating factors, it is clear the unique physiology of women is just one of the considerations. Nurses also need to be tuned in to their mental health status and life experiences.
For example, women are often caregivers to their families and might neglect their own health or are not able to take time to focus on their own health. Women’s mental health is often the subject of ridicule as being purely ‘hormonal’ and while this certainly comes into play, focusing on this aspect can feel invalidating to many women who could benefit from professional intervention. Women may be unwilling to undergo much-needed examinations and procedures because of feelings of shame or due to religious reasons, and provision that would enable them to access healthcare, such as having a female gynecologist or attendant might not be in place.
Should women’s health nurses be female?
This issue is significant to the way modern nursing has become a profession that fully embraces both men and women. So, to ensure women get responsive and appropriate healthcare, is it better if their nurses are female, leaving male nurses to treat men?
The truth is that the gender of the nurse shouldn’t matter at all, as long as they have received thorough training in how to provide adaptive, patient-centered care. This includes sufficient opportunities to develop both their personal and professional skills during the qualification program.
Through education, they also become confident and competent in the soft skills associated with nursing and can treat every patient as an individual. This includes communicating empathetically with both genders to get vital information that will assist with their diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing care.
Training in the complexities of the human condition
Alongside awareness of the different health needs of men and women, and a good grounding in soft skills, nurses also learn to switch methodology and approach when studying for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). For example, Baylor University’s accelerated BSN program includes a strong focus on the analysis and synthesis of complex human needs. This in-depth level of understanding of individual needs at different levels of care empowers future nurses to champion and deliver health equity – changing their own lives as well as their patients’ lives.
Communication and critical analysis
According to one study into the role nurses can play in achieving better health outcomes: “Nurses have the potential to reshape the landscape of health equity over the next decade by expanding their roles, working in new settings and in new ways, and markedly expanding efforts to partner with communities and other sectors.”
An example of finding new ways to better respond to the gender-specific healthcare needs of women is expanding the scope of their already comprehensive patient communications and note taking. From this information, they can make clearer healthcare decisions, including making referrals. For example, a pregnant woman’s health issues may not be completely outlined in the usual medical history that is taken. There may be economic, environmental, and societal issues that impact her ability to stay healthy and deliver the baby to full term.
Addressing such social needs – in conjunction with local agencies – would be a task for a community-based nurse. The World Health Organization (WHO) reinforces that women’s health needs go beyond biological differences between the genders, stating: “The health of women and girls is of particular concern because, in many societies, they are disadvantaged by discrimination rooted in sociocultural factors.”
Education and prevention
Health education and disease prevention are often integrated into the roles and responsibilities of modern nursing professionals. This should involve taking an innovative and strong approach to adapt to women’s health needs. In turn, this could involve looking closely at the knowledge gaps and practical barriers that affect female patients, working to dismantle them. Responsive, person-centered, and equitable nursing care is essential for improving health outcomes for women of every age and stage of life, thereby affecting the health of communities and society as a whole.