Let’s talk about women & health

Updated: Mar 9

By Beth Olson

It’s Women’s History Month! Which, of course, means it’s time to celebrate Texas women and their contributions to healthcare.

But first, we need to address a present-day issue.

In my quest to better understand the long-term benefits of sexual health education, I’ve read more and more articles about negative experiences women have with their doctors. More directly – women talk to medical providers about symptoms only to be told there’s nothing wrong. Exercise more. It’s just hormones. You should really consider seeing a psychiatrist.

Is this every woman’s experience with every doctor? Of course not. But it happens enough that the medical community and researchers are starting to pay attention.

Is it a deliberate attempt to undermine women? Maybe sometimes. But it’s more likely because medicine has been a male-dominated field.

“Modern medical research has historically centered on men's health, by tradition and by statute,” Gabrielle Levy wrote in U.S, News & World Report. “Only in the past 25 years – with the lifting of a law that barred most women from participating in clinical trials and another requiring their inclusion – have researchers begun to systematically consider how women's health outcomes differ from men’s.”

Here is some data we all need to know:

  • “... a 2000 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that women are seven times more likely than men to be misdiagnosed and discharged in the middle of having a heart attack,” reported Harvard Health Publishing.

  • Women with endometriosis suffer symptoms for an average of 6-10 years before receiving the correct diagnosis. This is especially true for girls and young women, according to Speakendo.com.

  • 60% of pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. Black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related death than White women at all levels of education and income, says a Pew report.

So, what’s the solution? A big part of it — education and communication.

Educate women and girls about their bodies. Teach them how to confidently communicate with medical providers. Remind them to trust their instinct.

But let’s not stop there…

Increase female representation in the medical field. Yes. We need more women doctors. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that hospital patients with female doctors had better long-term outcomes than patients with male doctors. In other words, in this study, women seemed to be better doctors than men.

This JAMA study wouldn’t have even been possible without the women in health who came before us. Doctors. Nurses. Advocates. Policymakers. We Texas women have generations of tough, often colorful, female role models whose experiences motivate us to keep moving forward. Here’s a tiny sampling of those women who pulled themselves — and others — up by their bootstraps:

Dr. Hallie Earle (Waco)

In 1907, Hallie Earle – Waco native and Baylor alumna – graduated with a medical degree from the Baylor University Medical School. She specialized in gynecology, was the only woman in her class, and had the highest GPA in the history of the medical school.

After post-graduate work in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, Dr. Earle moved home and opened a private practice. That practice was open from 1915-1948. She was McLennan County’s first licensed female doctor and was the only woman in practice for many years. Dr. Earle treated both insured and indigent patients.

I love this little tidbit: Dr. Earle felt so strongly about people putting their feet up to improve circulation that she would sit back and prop her feet up on her desk when talking to patients.

Dr. Thelma Adele Patton Law (Huntsville)

Dr. Patten Law was the first Black female doctor in Houston and one of the first in the state. She was the first female president of the Lone Star State Medical Association, and in 1955, became the first Black woman admitted to the Harris County Medical Society.

Dr. Patten Law specialized in obstetrics and gynecology and cared deeply about Black women in Houston. She provided prenatal care and offered hundreds of Black women in Houston the opportunity to have their babies in a hospital attended by a physician. Oftentimes, her services were the only primary health care Black women recieved.

And Texans can thank Dr. Patten Law for one of the strongest women in Texas history. On Feb. 21, 1936, Dr. Patten Law delivered a healthy baby girl named Barbara Jordan.

Apolonia “Polly” Muñoz Abarca (Mission)

Like Dr. Patten Law, Polly Muñoz Abarca grew up in a segregated Texas. She was the only Latina in her nursing class at the Corpus Christi School of Nursing. Polly once said that her roommate (and future friend) was initially scared of her because she’d heard that “Mexicans would kill you.” Polly graduated from nursing school in 1944.

Polly spent her career advocating for family planning. She knew this was a way to bring families out of poverty and provide health choices for women. In 1964, she lobbied for federal family planning funding that was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Because of her work, Corpus Christi received a $300,000 grant, making Corpus the first city to receive a direct federal grant for family planning. Before receiving these funds, contraception information sessions at her clinic averaged about ten attendees. By 1969, they had almost sixy attendees at each session. Couples also began visiting the center for pre-marital family planning consultations. Polly helped start similar federally funded programs in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. She even traveled to South America to discuss the necessity of family planning services with a variety of medical facilities.

“At the time, birth control was a no-no. I was daring, I guess.”

Hallie, Thelma, and Polly, thank you for being daring. We Texas women celebrate your work and will keep moving forward.

Beth Olson is director of adolescent health initiatives for Prosper Waco.