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Canadian senior women are less likely to see specialists compared to men, new study says — how does it impact their health?

"This significant gender gap that older women are experiencing, is alive and well," the expert says.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Canadian senior women are less likely to see a specialist compared to senior men, and this can have serious impact on their overall health. (Getty) Sad caucasian senior woman wearing casual clothes sits on couch at home alone feels unhappy because of headache, stress, illness or bad news, she needs rest and sleep
Canadian senior women are less likely to see a specialist compared to senior men, and this can have serious impact on their overall health. (Getty)

With Canada's senior population on the rise, the demand for specialized health care services is growing. A recent StatsCan report has highlighted a critical issue: senior women in Canada are significantly less likely than their male counterparts to seek medical specialists and undergo non-emergency medical tests.

The StatsCan study, "Access to specialized health care services among older Canadians," presented some stark statistics: out of 2.6 million Canadian adults aged 65 and older who visited medical specialists, a disproportionate number were men (37.7 per cent of healthy senior men compared to 29.9 per cent of healthy senior women).

Similarly, fewer senior women received non-emergency tests compared to men. These numbers are not just statistics; they represent a significant portion of the population potentially at risk due to inadequate health care access.

Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health, wasn't surprised by these findings. "I was concerned to see that this significant gender gap that older women are experiencing, is alive and well," he stated.

But why are we seeing a gender disparity and what does it mean for Canadian women's health? Here's what you need to know.


Why is there a gender gap in senior care?

An old age miniature man and woman standing on a pile of coins. About 38 per cent of healthy senior men see a specialist, compared to just 30 per cent of healthy senior women in Canada. (Getty)
About 38 per cent of healthy senior men see a specialist, compared to just 30 per cent of healthy senior women in Canada. There are financial reasons for the gap. (Getty)

Sinha pointed to several factors that contribute to this gender gap. Economic challenges, such as the affordability of transportation or hospital parking, disproportionately affect women, many of whom live on a tighter budget due to historical inequities in pension access and earnings.

"If you can't afford parking at a hospital, or if you can't afford to take a taxi... that's going to limit you from being able to go see a specialist care provider," he claimed. "The reason why there may be more financial security issues as they age is that a number of older women in this generation may not have been able to have access to workplace pension plans."

Not only is it harder for older adults with chronic health issues to access specialist care... It's not just about poverty, or financial constraints or education — there's also a gendered aspect to it.

The role of unpaid caregiving cannot be overstated either. "Among older people who are caregivers, older women tend to more often be providing that role," Sinha noted, adding this often comes at the expense of their own health. This sacrifice is a significant barrier to accessing specialist care, as time and energy are diverted towards caring for others.


How does limited access impact the health of senior women?

Senior woman suffering from chest pain. Female having heart attack. She as heath problems.Delayed or missed diagnoses can escalate into more severe health problems. (Getty)
Delayed or missed diagnoses can escalate into more severe health problems. (Getty)

The lack of specialist care can have severe implications for the health of senior women. Sinha highlighted the importance of specialists in managing chronic conditions and the potential risks of delayed diagnoses.

"This is where the advice and support of a specialist would be helpful," he explained. "This care gap... can negatively impact the health and well-being of older women compared to older men."

Diagnosing senior women presents unique challenges, often due to symptom presentation that differs from men's. Sinha provided an example: "A classic sign of heart disease in medical school is chest pain... whereas a more common sign in an older woman... is actually shortness of breath." This discrepancy can lead to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, affecting women's health outcomes.

That care gap genuinely can negatively impact the health and wellbeing of older women compared to older men.Dr. Samir Sinha

Sinha specifically mentioned the potential impact on conditions such as dementia, noting, "This may be why we sometimes see higher rates of certain diseases, for example, in older women." He explained that delayed or missed diagnoses, particularly in chronic conditions like cardiovascular health, can escalate into more severe health problems.


How can we bridge the gap in health care?

Dr. Sinha encourages senior women to advocate for their health and ask for a specialists if they feel like something's not right. (Getty) A black female doctor standing next to female patient and showing her something on digital tablet.
A Canadian doctor encourages senior women to advocate for their health and ask for a specialists if they feel like something's not right. (Getty)

To combat these disparities, Sinha advocates for increased awareness among healthcare providers and the elimination of barriers to care. He suggested a more attentive approach to the unique challenges faced by senior women, stating, "It's important to be attuned to these issues... and appreciate how these might be factors that are leading to this gender gap in the provision of care."

He explained senior women who want to see a specialist should be provided with options that are accessible to them, and not just in terms of location. "If an older woman is is also balancing unpaid caregiving duties, they may be reluctant to pursue seeing going to see a specialist unless you can organize it during a time where they can get some some relief and support," Sinha claimed.

Don't be afraid to say, 'Would a specialist opinion be helpful here?'Dr. Samir Sinha

The expert added if you feel something's not right with your health — tell your doctor. Sinha encourages senior women to advocate for their health: "Older women know their bodies well... if you are concerned and feel something's not right... raise these issues with your primary care provider."

Empowerment and self-advocacy are crucial steps toward bridging the healthcare access gap.

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