The Women of Ellensburg: Issues of Women in Washington State
Health of Women
Women and Health: A Range of Concerns
Women's concerns about their health cover a broad range from diseases specific to women, to research about these diseases, to drugs and alcoholism, and problems about doctors and insurance. These concerns frequently point to the necessity for women becoming better educated about their health.
The Diseases of Women
There is some evidence that finding cures for diseases associated primarily or completely with women has little priority among medical researchers. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among women aged 30 to 50. While early detection can cut the death rate in half, there has been no significant reduction in the mortality rate for this disease in the past 35 years. Similarly, early diagnosis of diabetes - a disease primarily affecting women - is important in controlling the disease, yet 1.6 million Americans, two-thirds of them women, are diabetic and don't know it. Overlooked or neglected, diabetes leads to serious health problems. It is, for example, the second most common cause of blindness in the U.S.
Women, Their Doctors, and Insurance Companies
Women are the largest users of health care; they make 5.6 visits to doctors for every 4.3 visits made by men. Yet, some women have expressed concern about the quality of medical care they receive and suggest that the comparatively high number of women's visits are actually attempts to gain satisfaction. The concerns of some of these women can be documented.
Though little is understood about menopause, physicians repeatedly prescribe estrogen despite the unproven benefits and proven dangers related to cancer, thrombophlebitis, and strokes of this fifth most prescribed drug in the U.S. Even more alarming are statistics about hysterectomies. Hysterectomies are the second most frequently performed surgery in the country and, in 1976, American surgeons grossed over $400 million in fees for this operation. Hysterectomies in the U.S. are performed two and one-half times more frequently than in England and four times more frequently than in Sweden.
Women also express concern about rates charged women by insurance companies and inadequate coverage frequently offered women.
Perhaps no single female health matter exemplifies women's concerns with the medical establishment more than pregnancy. Often, women are not covered for pregnancy in health insurance policies and, despite the fact that 99% of births took place in hospitals last year, many women are shunning hospitals in favor of at-home births because of the exhorbitant cost and objectionable birthing techniques. Some are aware that the U.S. ranks 15th in infant mortality. A study done by Columbia University of Public Health showed that more than 51% of infant deaths in some New York hospitals could have been prevented by proper pre-natal care. Yet, one-third of the women giving birth in public hospitals receive no such care.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Alcohol and drug abuse are increasing health problems among women. More women are drinking at a younger age. Whereas in 1958, 45% of adult women drank, a 1974 poll showed that 61% of adult women, 73% of college women, and 69% of high school women used alcohol. Women often turn to alcohol as a response to pressure, boredom, or ~oneliness.To many women who are overburdened, alcohol seems a solution to insoluble problems.
Because of society's stigma against the alcoholic woman, many go without any treatment. About 40% of the nation's alcoholics are women, though only 23% of the membership of Alcoholic Anonymous are women. Treatment programs for alcoholic women must be geared to the needs of women. Many women suffer self-esteem problems because of the way women have been seen in our society, and treatment must deal with these instilled feelings of inadequacy.
Drugs commonly abused by women are usually legal, prescribed drugs like tranquilizers. Valium, the drug most frequently prescribed for women, is addictive and can mask other problems. Tranquilizers and sleeping pills are often prescribed instead of dealing with the underlying difficulties that bring a woman to her doctor. Doctors also prescribe "speed " for weight problems, despite its well-known addictive nature and profound side effects.
Washington State Alcoholism Programs
The Washington State Office of Alcoholism recently established objectives in a statewide plan that refer specifically to women. They hope to familiarize alcoholic women and the community-at-large with the services that are available and to increase the level of services for alcoholic women. They will review the need for special residential alcoholic services and facilities for women and establish these services if it is shown to be necessary and practicable. A task force on women and alcohol has recently been organized to examine these issues and make recommendations. Specifically, the task force will look at women alcoholics in the family: How can a women arrange for child care while she is getting treatment? What treatment resources should be made available? What are the problems a woman will have to face when she re-enters society?
Women's Solutions to Health Concerns
In response to women's concerns about health care, women have worked to change the medical establishment and to establish alternative care.
In 1962, 150 women began an effort at Group Health Cooperative to share complaints and make proposals that would sensitize doctors to women's problems. They also had a goal of putting more women on the Cooperative's board and lowering contraceptive and abortion costs. Although their complaints were dealt with insensitively at first, many of their demands have since been met.
Aradia Clinic in Seattle opened in March of 1972, the first federally funded health clinic. Aradia offers an alternative to the established medical system and educates women about their bodies and the medical procedures that are used on them. When the government asked the clinic for non-medical information in 1976 and the patient's anonymity would no longer be guaranteed, Aradia would not accept the grant terms and lost their funding. Aradia has been surviving without federal support since.
Alternative health care and the establishment joined in 1974 when the first paramedic (originally trained for clinics such as Aradia and the Fremont Health Clinic) was accepted into Harborview Hospital in Se8~tle. Women's health care specialists, some of them medically untrained at the beginning, now can insert IUD's, give pelvic exams, breast exams, treat vaginitis, detect venereal disease, and counsel other women about birth control, sexuality problems, and menopause.