Are Sports Doctors Sexist?

When I started to write about sports injuries, I envisioned my reader as someone like me: a former college athlete, middle-aged and, well, male. But women immediately started telling me how much they care about the subject. A bookstore owner talked about injuries on her softball team. A literary agent told me upper body training helped her survive a 50-kilometer run. And so on.

The experience reminded me how  easy it is to fall into prejudices about who does sports — and who needs help with sports injuries. That thought came to mind again recently when the New Republic quoted Obama saying, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” The possibility that his daughters might want to play apparently never occurred to him.

Jill Caryl Weiner
Jill Caryl Weiner

No one I know has struggled with such attitudes more than my friend Jill Caryl Weiner, who seems to have played just about every sport you can name and has wounds to show for it. Even when she could still play football, she sometimes had trouble being taken seriously by her teammates. In the New York Times, she tells the poignant tale of pestering her quarterback to pass to her and then making a diving catch to win the game… only to tear ligaments in her shoulder.

It got worse from there.

“I went to a young male doctor at Beth Israel,” she told me. “I told him how I got my injury, etc., etc., and he said ‘You won’t need surgery to carry your groceries.'”

That was back in 1994, but it wasn’t the end of her disappointments with the medical establishment.

More recently — but probably about 4 years ago, I went to another sports orthopedic surgeon who interviewed me for a long time. I told him I played football and street hockey and my hip trouble was most likely a hockey injury from getting checked into the pavement really hard… After his examination, he said he wanted to operate right away. I was very concerned because he said — even after total hip replacement — I couldn’t play sports anymore: I couldn’t play baseball, I couldn’t run at all, and I definitely couldn’t play football. And then when he spoke into his tape recorder he noted that I wanted surgery so that I could paint my toe nails.  I assure you I never mentioned my toe nails.

Isolated incidents? Apparently not. In a study from 2008, a man and a woman with identical osteoarthritis of the knee visited the same 72 doctors in and around Toronto. They described their symptoms the same way, using a  script they memorized before the visits. But 67% of the doctors recommended knee replacement to the man while only 33% recommended it to the woman.

How many women are missing out on exercise and fun because their doctors don’t think they need their hips or knees?

It’s depressing that such prejudices may be harming so many people. Both as a personal trainer and as a health writer, I hereby pledge to never make such assumptions.