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Report: Women More Likely Than Men to Have Put Off Health Care During Pandemic

woman at doctor
lth care visits during the pandemic.

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Key Takeaways

  • According to a new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 40% of women report that they have skipped preventive health services during the pandemic.
  • The report found that even women in poor or fair health avoided seeking care.
  • Doctors are concerned about the potential fallout of putting off needed and preventive care.

Many people have been nervous to seek medical care amid COVID-19, but a new report finds that more women than men have been avoiding going to the doctor during the pandemic—even when they were in poor health. It also highlights that fear of getting the virus is not the only factor contributing to the gap.

Previous research established that appointments for preventive health care services plummeted at the start of the pandemic. According to the Healthcare Cost Institute, childhood vaccinations were down roughly 60% in mid-April 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. The number of mammograms and pap smears conducted fell by nearly 80%, and colonoscopies declined almost 90%.

The new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) is the first to identify gender differences in seeking care during the pandemic, as well as highlight the many nuances to the disparity.

Stark Differences

The researchers used data from the KFF Women’s Health Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,661 women and 1,144 men, aged 18-64, which was conducted between November 19, 2020, and December 17, 2020.

When they analyzed the data, the researchers noted a large gender gap:

  • During the pandemic, 38% of women reported skipping preventive health services, compared to 26% of men who reported skipping appointments.
  • Women were also more likely than men to not get a recommended medical test or treatment (23% vs. 15%).

Overall Health

Women were not only less likely than men to go to their annual physicals—they also skipped medical appointments when they weren’t feeling well.

Women who reported being in good, very good, or excellent health were often even less likely to go to the doctor than their peers who were in poorer health.

About 46% of women who reported being in poor or fair health said that they missed appointments. About 32% of women reported missing tests or treatments that their doctors had recommended.

Income Level

The researchers also noted an income gap—though it was not what they would have expected to see. During the pandemic, women with incomes greater than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty line were more likely to skip preventive health services than women with lower incomes.

The researchers noted that typically, the reverse is true (women at lower income levels are usually less likely to seek health care services than women with higher incomes).

Prescriptions

During the pandemic, nearly one in five women in fair or poor health reported that they did not fill a prescription, cut their pills in half, or skipped doses of prescribed medication—more than twice the number of women who reported being in good, very good, or excellent health.

As with other healthcare services, keeping up with prescription medications was also linked to income level. Low-income women, those who were uninsured, and those with Medicaid were more likely to not fill a prescription, cut pills in half, or skip doses compared to higher-income women and those with private insurance.

Why Are Women Less Likely to Seek Care?

Although the KFF report did not specifically explore why more women than men were likely to miss preventive care during the pandemic, the researchers have some theories.

Fears of getting COVID-19 at a doctor's office or hospital kept many people from seeking healthcare during the pandemic. Women who are in poor health may see themselves as being more at risk for COVID-19. By skipping preventive care, they may have been trying to reduce their risk of being exposed to the virus.

For some women, it might have been less about COVID concerns and more about care just not being available. More women than men (30% vs. 20%) reported not being able to get an appointment during the pandemic.

State emergency declarations during the pandemic limited services that are seen as non-essential or elective. Paired with reduced office hours or closures, these factors may have made it more difficult for women to access the care they needed.

What Doctors Say

While healthcare professionals are worried about the consequences of women delaying care, they understand that many women have had added responsibilities during the pandemic.

“These findings are not surprising as it was also shown that during the pandemic, women had increased responsibility to take care of the family members, schooling for children and also older family members,” says women’s health expert Jessica Shepherd, MD, an OB-GYN in Texas and the chief medical officer of Verywell Health. “Their time to devote to their health also suffered as well.”

Doctor's offices also had limitations in terms of what they could offer. “There were several months that we were unable to provide certain services, like hysterectomies or other surgical procedures, delaying therapy," G. Thomas Ruiz, MD, lead OB-GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Verywell. He adds that at his practice, "the most consistent patients to come in were pregnant women. Other than that, women with non-emergent conditions were more hesitant to come in.”

Women's health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Verywell that "data shows that one in four women ended up taking time off because of a COVID-19 illness within the family or closure of daycare facilities and/or schools.”

As a result, Wider says that many women simply "did not have the time to go to doctor's appointments, and skipped medical exams and preventive services.”

The Potential Fallout

There are several consequences of skipping preventive appointments during the pandemic—from delayed diagnosis to missed windows of opportunity for treatment.

Worsening Health

Wider says that “delays in healthcare appointments can result in the deterioration of health conditions," and emphasizes that it is "incredibly important for women to make appointments with their health care providers and go for screening tests."

Wider says that there is a “major concern” among healthcare professionals that there will be “an uptick in cancers, heart disease, and other conditions post-pandemic.”

Later Diagnosis and Treatment

Ruiz is concerned that patients who are at high risk for cancer or other diseases might be diagnosed at a later or more serious stage than they would have if they had gotten preventative care sooner. Wider says that the only way to avoid that outcome is for women to make screening appointments and to address any health concerns that they may have.

Addressing Patient Fears

If you have fears about contracting COVID-19 at the doctor’s office, Ruiz says to consider that you’re probably safer there than you are running errands.

“We are so diligent about making sure that there’s distancing and wearing a mask,” says Ruiz. “In most places, the majority of the staff has been vaccinated. You are much safer going to the doctor’s office to get care than if you are going to a grocery store or restaurant.”

That said, Ruiz understands that people have hesitations and hopes to provide reassurance. "I’ve been working on the front line. But, when you come to our office, we are incredibly diligent at keeping everyone safe.”

Shepherd urges women to see the doctor and to make use of telemedicine services when they are offered. “The use of telemedicine has allowed women to have the convenience and flexibility within a limited time schedule to get the care they need." Shepherd also adds that “preventative services and testing that can help health long term.” 

What This Means For You

If you've been avoiding the doctor's office during the pandemic, experts say that now is the time to get caught up on your preventive healthcare, as well as any recommended tests or treatments. Healthcare facilities and staff are taking precautions to keep patients safe from COVID, and putting off screenings, exams, and other health services can have consequences for your health.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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  1. Health Care Cost Institute. The impact of COVID-19 on the use of preventive health care. Updated February 12, 2021.

  2. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). Women's experiences with health care during the COVID-19 pandemic: findings from the KFF Women's Health Survey. Updated March 22, 2021.

  3. Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). Women, work, and family during COVID-19: findings from the KFF Women's Health Survey. Updated March 22, 2021.