Women’s Health Suffers as Research Studies Continue to Ignore Gender

The continued focus on males in medical research studies that shape the treatment of disease endangers women’s health, a new report found.

Insufficient attention to gender differences occurs at all stages of research, from lab to doctor’s office, according to a report released today by the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at George Washington University in Washington, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Both animal and human studies typically use male subjects and, even when females are included, the results are not analyzed and reported by sex, the authors said. In a telephone interview, Paula Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center said scientists had to “change the way science is done and translated to clinical care.”

“[T]he mechanisms underlying health may operate differently in men and women,” the authors wrote. It is not enough to control for sex differences:  the differences must be investigated. For example, the plaque that causes heart disease is more diffusely deposited in women’s arteries, so cardiac catheterization may be inadequate for women, Johnson said during a conference call with reporters, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The technology exists to go into the artery with a small ultrasound probe, or measure the flow across the artery, Johnson said, but doctors “have to be thinking about, and have knowledge that these sex differences do occur.”

In another example, estrogen is suspected to increase women’s susceptibility to lung cancer, which may explain why female non-smokers are three times more likely to get lung cancer than their male counterparts. But current research often fails to separate data based on gender-specific factors, according to the report. And though women are about 70 percent more likely to suffer depression than men, the authors note that animal studies on brain disorders that rely exclusively on males outnumber studies in females 5.5 to 1, Businessweek reports.

The authors point to money as the problem in some instances, according to Businessweek. To include adequate numbers of female subjects in a study, often requires increased funding. But where a study already includes female subjects, the problem is not funding but reporting data by sex. Among their recommendations, the authors say the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require all medical evaluations include efficacy and safety data separately for men and women.



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