April 23, 2019

Gender Inequality in Health: Heather Bowerman at TEDxBerkeley

At a TED presentation in 2019 Heather Bowerman spoke of the inequalities women face in healthcare due to fundamental issue of underfunding and deep rooted stigma. It wasn't until 1993 that women were included in clinical trials thanks to the appointment of Dr Bernadine P Healy as first female director of the National Institutes of Health. It wasn't until 2014 that the NIH began to acknowledge the problem of male bias in preclinical trials, and until 2016 for it to mandate that any research money it granted must include female animals.

How can we ground women's health in basic science? 

Researchers have avoided using females for fear that their reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations could confound the results of delicately calibrated experiments. Medicine has always seen women first and foremost as reproductive bodies. Diseases presenting differently in women are often missed or misdiagnosed, and those affecting mainly women remain largely a mystery: understudied, undertreated and frequently misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. This has major knock-on effects for both medical practice and the health of women, hampering the conductors of trials to test the safety and efficacy of their discoveries. 

How can we measure effectiveness? 

A study published by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) found that since 1997 10 prescription drugs have been withdrawn from the US market with 8 out of 10 of these drugs posing greater health risks to women than to men. 

In order to improve the statistics and provision of adequate medical treatment for women it is crucial we improve transparency, expand our research requirements and improve education. 

A few areas of possible improvement emerge when considering gender bias:

  • Recognizing gender bias: The first step is to acknowledge that gender bias exists. It’s also imperative that patients are aware of gender bias in healthcare and ask the right questions of their care teams.
  • Conducting more research involving women: Many research studies into diseases and treatments are skewed with a higher number of male participants. Ensuring women are properly represented in medical research will help alleviate the gender bias.
  • Educating healthcare professionals: Outreach programs to help healthcare organizations address the gender bias will help make professionals more aware of bias and how it manifests. It’s also important that medical teams understand how certain health issues can present differently in men and women.
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