Pharmacists could play a key role in closing a gender gap in pain management, the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) has said.

Implicit bias on the part of healthcare professionals can mean women don’t receive the level of pain management they require, leading to a gender gap in pain management, FIP suggested.

The FIP’s report, examining pain experienced by women and pharmacists’ responses, follows the meeting of an international insight board, held by FIP in September 2022 in Seville, Spain.

While there is little formal research in pharmacy to demonstrate a gender pain gap, the report did find that pharmacists were aware of the profession’s unconscious bias when dealing with patients.

For instance, the report found that pharmacists were more likely to suggest that women are ‘over-emphasising’ pain according to outdated gender stereotypes.

One pharmacist participant at the event remarked on the influence of gender in how people identify their pain symptoms, saying: ‘there is bias towards women in some cultures that believe women seek attention through reporting pain’.

Another suggested: ‘usually, if men feel pain, they manage it at home with their caregiver…[which] may increase the number of women coming for pain management for their family’.

FIP invited experts and representatives of member organisations to discuss best practices when pharmacists deliver pain management advice.

Co-chair of the FIP insight board meeting, Professor Parisa Aslani, said: ‘Research indicates that pain experienced by women is underestimated and undertreated. Alarmingly, in addition to receiving less effective pain relief, evidence suggests that women with pain are more likely to be prescribed antidepressants’.

The insight board suggested that development programmes and amendments to the pharmacy curricula can eliminate unconscious bias when managing pain in patients of all genders, but particularly women.

It also said that providing pharmacists with additional training specifically to remove gender bias, and training for gender-specific care could ensure that women are receiving the correct levels of treatment.

The report suggested two principles that pharmacists should follow to reduce bias when delivering care:

  • Fair and equitable patient-centred treatment
  • Gender responsive pharmaceutical care approach

One pharmacist at the meeting believed they lacked ‘education about the gender pain gap or how pain should be managed in women’.

FIP proposed changes to the pharmacy curricula to eliminate a knowledge gap for pharmacists in providing equal care for men and women.

It also said it will develop resources for pharmacists ‘to support evidence-based decision making and appropriate patient-centred care in pain management’.

Pharmacists said they felt they needed more tools to understand all health inequalities. One pharmacist suggested the introduction of workshops ‘to acknowledge their bias’, and to pinpoint patterns in practice to help tackle the gender pain gap.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) has also identified that overcoming bias is essential to tackling health inequalities.

But a separate study published in the journal of Pain Research and Management found that some pharmacy students did not believe that implicit biases impact a healthcare professional’s treatment of a patient, as well as identifying a group of students who did not believe in implicit bias at all.

The FIP insight board meetings inform FIP policy and planning with experts and representatives of FIP member organisations discussing best practices and key issues. The next meeting will be held in Brisbane, Australia, in September.