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The Dangerous Problem Of Gender Bias In Healthcare Design

Medical equipment is designed mostly for men by men, yet women make up over 75% of the healthcare industry’s workforce. It’s time to build more equitable products, write Dan Formosa, PhD and Natalia Bednarek of the 4B Collective.

The Dangerous Problem Of Gender Bias In Healthcare Design
[Photo: Piron Guillaume/Unsplash]

Operating rooms have a curious combination of the latest medical technology alongside some rather antiquated products and practices. Here’s an example: In preparation for surgery the supply room sends a surgical kit to the OR that includes the instruments to be used in the procedure, along with items such as surgical gowns for the team. Because the sizes of the team members are unknown all extra-large gowns are sent. The thought that “extra-large will fit everyone” means that each smaller-bodied member of the team will essentially be wearing a tent. It’s difficult to perform tasks in clothing several times larger than required – it impacts the comfort and focus of the surgical team, affecting their work. And it looks silly. Yet long existing practices like this are rarely questioned.

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women comprise over 75% of the workforce in healthcare and social assistance – hospital workers, home healthcare workers, and people who work in doctors’ offices. Humans are a diverse species, and as any anthropometric survey will point out women are generally smaller than men. They’ll also point out ethnic size differences. People from the Philippines and India, for example, tend to be smaller than people from Germanic countries. Larger bodies correlate with larger and stronger hands, smaller bodies with smaller and less-strong hands. This diversity is not a problem as long as we consider its scope and design products to accommodate everyone. But we don’t.

Medical equipment and healthcare products are designed mostly by men, and in many cases for men – surgical tools, for instance, designed for larger hands to operate. While striving for significant advances in medicine we’re failing to address some basic human considerations, often in flagrant disregard of the field’s heavy balance of women. It’s a systemic problem requiring women to adapt. So despite the fact that healthcare is a great sector for women to enter we hear ongoing complaints. The misfit problem may get worse before it gets better.

[Photo: Ken Treloar/Unsplash]
Our current 2:1 men-to-women ratio of practicing physicians is about to change. Women presently account for just under half of all medical school graduates, so for emerging physicians women are hardly a minority.

While the gender balance is changing, we’re facing a physician shortage – The Association of American Medical Colleges’ predicts that by 2025 the deficit may exceed 94,000. We need more.

We’re also facing a nursing shortage. One of the fastest growing occupations in the United States, due in large part to our aging population, our supply of nurses isn’t keeping up with demand. That deficit will approximate one million in the next five to six years. How will we compensate? Like we have been, we’ll continue to import nurses from the Philippines and India, countries making concerted efforts to fill the void.

Doctors or nurses, it’s in everyone’s best interest to both attract and retain more people in healthcare fields. But if we’re going to attract and retain more women, we need to be more considerate. We must acknowledge the presence and importance of women in the products we design, because when it comes down to it, failure to do so will ultimately be detrimental to our health. 

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What can we do about it? The first step is to change mindsets. There’s a long history of male dominance in the medical profession, but lingering biases, even if deeply embedded in our brains and culture, are reversible. Once that’s accomplished, developing universally usable products becomes relatively easy. In view of the increasing number of women entering medical fields, the need for better healthcare, and a growing awareness of the benefits of good design, it’s difficult to believe many current male-biased practices will persist. Women will increasingly present an overwhelming show of force. They are certain to exert pressure on manufacturers and hospital administrators to consider a wider range of healthcare workers in the products being created and made available. But sooner would be better.

Dan Formosa, Ph.D. is a member of the 4B Collective, a firm dedicated to design for women, and Natalia Bednarek is a strategist at Sterling Brands. 

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