Speaking her language - finally

December 07, 1993|By Alan Gathright | Alan Gathright,Knight-Ridder News Service

Women's health care, long neglected by male-dominated medicine, is undergoing revolutionary change. Across the country, the health care industry is aggressively courting female patients and asking to tailor medical care to suit their needs.

The result is a vast array of new services, from educational seminars about breast cancer and domestic violence to comprehensive clinics that care for women from puberty through their post-menopause years. There's even an innovative clinic in Palo Alto, Calif., that specializes in helping older women smooth the passage through menopause.

"The trend is moving toward comprehensive women's care," says Linda Merkey, who oversaw the five-year, $13 million creation of Baptist Women's Center in Oklahoma City, one of the nation's most progressive facilities. "Women are wanting to take care of themselves and their families. . . . They want [that care] delivered by caring professionals -- doctors and nurses who will listen."

It's a difficult trend to quantify. There are no hard statistics on the number of women's health clinics, for example, because they're loosely defined. But industry officials agree that the range and number of women's services is growing, reflected by the rising number of people specializing in women's care.

The National Association of Women's Health Professionals, begun five years ago to serve women's-care specialists, already has 800 members. The movement is bound by a common philosophy: Give women what they want -- a voice in their health care, education in prevention and, ultimately, responsibility for their well-being.

"Health is not something that a doctor does for you. Health is something that you create in your life," says Dr. Charlea T. Massion, 42, an Aptos, Calif., family physician and co-founder of the Women's Health Forum, a national newsletter for doctors and medical students.

Given increasing health care competition, providers are eager to craft more appealing, convenient women's services. While a man often can be served by one doctor, women have their health care fragmented among an unwieldy array of three or more physicians. Gynecologists care for their reproductive health and an internist might oversee breast-health concerns and give diagnostic tests, while a family practitioner is their primary physician.

"I think it sort of splits up their body, and no one health care provider has an overall view of them," says Dr. Massion, who's also a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University.

Concerns that this patchwork approach to women's care has dangerous gaps are supported by recent studies showing that tests for cervical and breast cancer are often overlooked -- particularly if the doctor is a man.

Women's growing dissatisfaction with this haphazard approach is fueling the demand for specialized care.

"The baby boomers are reaching midlife, and they're facing breast cancer and menopause and osteoporosis," says Susan Millar, the marketing specialist for women's services at Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley, Calif.

"They're not going to face these issues like their mothers did. They're used to being active in the decisions concerning all aspects of their life. Just like when they became active participants in childbirth -- Lamaze classes grew and fathers were brought into the delivery room. Now they're reaching a different phase of their life, and they want to know about it."

Women are packing educational seminars at hospitals.

When Alta Bates sponsored a seminar by writer Gail Sheehy after the release of her best-selling book on menopause last year, they sold out 400 $15 tickets in a day. "It was the most talked-about thing around town, and women were frantic to

come and hear Gail talk," Ms. Millar recalls. The hospital ended up filling a 1,700-seat auditorium.

In San Jose, Calif., women routinely jam Good Samaritan Hospital's 300-seat auditorium for seminars ranging from juggling work and family to living longer.

"We get calls from women saying, 'Boy, you're fulfilling a need,' " says Gina Fogelstrom of the hospital's parent company, Health Dimensions Inc. Last year, Ms. Fogelstrom was asked to coordinate women's and children's services at the firm's three area hospitals, Good Samaritan, San Jose Medical Center and ** Gilroy's South Valley Hospital.

TTC Some medical groups specialize in offering care for women and by women. At the Women's Health Group in Portola Valley, Calif., co-founder Dr. Barbara A. Peters says talking with a woman about her family life can be just as important as taking her pulse.

"Women tend to want to talk and communicate about feelings and their family and how that relates to their health," she says. "And I think it does, and it's wonderful to address that instead of just looking at the physical, because that's only one component of the human being."

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