Review of "Doing Harm"

By Maya Dusenbery
HarperOne, 2018
Review by Christian Perring on Mar 12th 2019
Doing Harm

Maya Dusenbury argues that medicine is deeply sexist all the way through. She sets out evidence that medicine has been based on men's biology, that women have been ignored, and that women continue to be ignored. This is especially important when women present with symptoms that doctors can't explain, because then they are dismissed as having a psychosomatic or trivial problem. She focuses especially on women's heart disease, autoimmune disease, chronic pain, and diseases that get labelled as women's hysteria.

Dusenbery is a medical journalist, rather than a physician or an academic. She writes more as an activist than as a neutral observer of medicine. Her aim is for medicine to change. While this book is not a self-help book, there are clear implications for women in their roles as patients: they have to be advocates for themselves, and they should seek out help from relevant Internet groups in how to deal with doctors if they experience discrimination.

While Dusenbery is not herself employed as a medical researcher, it is clear that this book has been carefully researched. There are about 70 pages of notes in the 391 page book. What's more, Dusenbery is thorough in making her case for her claims about the ways that medicine has in the past and continues to discriminate against women. Indeed, readers may feel that readability is sacrificed in order to document the many ways that doctors fail to takes women's voices seriously enough. There are points where one is tempted to skip a few pages because the point has already been made. On the other hand, one may find that the cataloguing of the faillures of medicine have a cumulative effect, showing how deeply problematic medical standards remain even after many years of feminist critics pointing out errort.

Many of the points that Dusenbery makes are not new. Critics have been pointing out for decades that pharmacology testing and other testing of medical devices has been done primarily on men, and so there is far less certainty that the results are applicable to women. There has been regulation to require testing to be done both on women and men, and Dusenbery documents this. She also argues that the problems have not been completely solved yet. 

One can find brief summaries of a good number of Dusenbery's claims in a TEDX talk by Alyson McGregor (LINK), which is a particularly useful resource. Dusenbery herself provides references to a wealth of great websites, articles and books. But Doing Harm is probably the best available popular up to date book on women and medicine, and will be an excellent resource for not just women, but also for doctors and nurses, and anyone who teaches medical ethics. 

It is important to note that Dusenbery deliberately does not address issues of reproductive health. One of her complaints about medicine is that whenever the topic of women's health is addressed, there is an almost exclusive focus on issues of reproduction, and other important aspects of women's health are neglected. Of course, that means that one needs to look elsewhere for a detailed examination of how medicine addresses reproductive health.

The unabridged audiobook is performed by Daryl Rosenberg. She does a fine job. Of course, the audioversion lacks the many pages of notes.

© 2019 Christian Perring


Christian Perring teaches in NYC.



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