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Doing Harm | Maya Dusenbery | Book Review

doing harm

My collection of books about women’s rage is large. It’s not quite as large (yet) as my collection of books about women’s failure to be adequately cared for by health care systems. I suspect one category has something to do with the other- but let’s not dwell on that. Doing Harm by Maya Dusenbery fits completely into the latter category, but she doesn’t ignore the former.

The subtitle of Doing Harm is: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick.

If that doesn’t spur some rage in you or women you know, then I just don’t know what will.

Sadly, this is not fiction. I cannot save you some fun plot points and avoid spoilers. The subtitle basically says it all. But man (pardon the pun), is the evidence against men and science and doctors and… almost everything ugly.

Doing Harm by Maya Dusenbery: Synopsis

Split into sections accounting for various ailments afflicting women (that is, all people but not treated in women), Dusenbery systematically outlines the various prejudices and systemic failures that have led to women being poorly or mis-diagnosed, badly treated, and ignored through the health care system.

Prefer to read about medicine in a fictional capacity? Try Mayflies

Some instances are very much a result of human choices – opting to view a woman’s ailment as ‘anxiety’ while the same ailment in a man warrants ‘further investigation’. But much of the book discusses the historic inequalities in scientific research that have led to women being under or not represented in studies. The result of this decades-long failure is that there simply isn’t research about how disease, medication, or treatments affect women to the degree there is that research for men.


I’ve read a fair number of books on this topic but I thought Dusenbery did a really excellent job. I am happy to blame doctors on just about any occasion. But the focus on how research has failed us was new to me and helpful for context.

The author separated the chapters by illness which was also useful. It put the various issues in context and so they could be measured next to other women and men with the same condition. It also revealed that many conditions, because they haven’t been studied in women, are not identified in women – because they have different markers than the same disease would have in men. Dusenbery writes: “…The women with MS told that the pain they felt was simply impossible because MS doesn’t cause pain. The teens whose endometriosis has gone undiagnosed because that’s a “career women’s disease”.”

And while she’s quick to point out that women shouldn’t have to be more knowledgeable about conditions than their doctors – she acknowledges that it doesn’t hurt to come to appointments armed with facts. I appreciated that, although the book was primarily an expose of the failures of medicine, it also addressed the practical reality of what to do when your doctor refuses to acknowledge your symptoms.

If you haven’t yet immersed yourself in the ‘doctors fail women’ genre, I would recommend this as a starting point. It’s accessible, not at all boring, and touches on the key issues without going too far into the science.

Rating Doing Harm

Though completely depressing, I really liked Doing Harm. It doesn’t get as much play as some other books on the topic, but I think this is unwarranted. I would recommend this one over many others in the same subject area. I also appreciated deeply that Dusenbery did not appear to be biased towards doctors – a common problem. She writes “As a society, we send doctors to school for many years, pay them good money, and confer on them the prestige and respect afforded to lauded experts; we should be able to be utterly uninformed, unempowered patients, and still get quality medical care.” Indeed, we should.

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Doing Harm, Maya Dusenbery, 2017. Harper Collins.

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