Gaps in Women’s Health Research Remain Despite Progress

WASHINGTON, DC—Research into women’s healthcare has improved over the last 20 years, but still lags in several key areas, according to an IoM report released last month. A concerted push to boost research on women’s health has had significant impacts on the burden of disease and deaths in areas such as cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and cervical cancer. However, little progress has been seen in the areas of unintended pregnancies, autoimmune diseases, alcohol and drug addiction, lung cancer, and dementia.

According to IoM researchers, fewer gains have been made in chronic and debilitating conditions that cause significant suffering, but have lower death rates. This suggests that researchers need to give quality of life similar consideration as mortality when directing their research efforts.

Also, the report concludes that barriers such as socio-economic and cultural influences still limit the potential and reach of research developments, especially among more disadvantaged women.

“There is good news and bad news on the state of women’s health research,” said IoM committee chair Nancy E Adler, PhD, professor of medical psychology and director of the Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco. “Significant boosts in research on women’s health issues have yielded measurable progress in reducing the toll of several serious disorders.  Unfortunately, less progress has been made on conditions that are not major killers but still profoundly affect women’s quality of life. These issues require similar attention and resources if we are to see better prevention and treatment.  And across all areas, researchers need to take into account the effects of both biologically determined sex differences and socially determined gender differences as a routine part of conducting research.” 

Much of the progress has been due to requirements for researchers to include women in studies. However, the full benefit of this has never been realized, since researchers do not routinely analyze and report results separately for women and men, the report noted. This limits the quality of the clinical information that could come out of these studies.

The report’s authors recommend that scientific journal editors require all papers reporting outcomes from clinical trials present data on men and women separately. They also recommend that FDA enforce companies’ compliance with requirements to provide sex-specific data on safety and efficacy of new drugs.

The IoM committee also recommended that HHS appoint a task force to develop strategies to communicate and market health messages about research results to women.

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