“Why leave women’s health to chance?” asks Dr. Paula Johnson of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in a recent TED talk. When it comes to the relationship between biomedical research and medical treatment, inattention to sex differences can often lead to inequity in health outcomes.
It’s been more than 20 years since Congress passed a law requiring women and minorities to be included in clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health. Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that men and women experience disease differently. However, simply including women in biomedical studies isn’t enough to ensure they receive the treatment they need.
Research has shown that numerous illnesses impact women differently than men. We know, for example, that depression is the top cause of disability for women around the world. Despite this, Johnson points out, 66 percent of brain research begins with tests on male animals or animals of unknown sex.
We also know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among women in the US, but the lack of sex-specific research hampers the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of this disease in women.
As Johnson explains in her talk, there are two crucial steps that need to happen for research to positively impact women’s health outcomes. First, researchers have to consider sex differences at the outset of their studies to ensure that they account for them. Second, researchers need to look for sex differences as they’re analyzing results and apply their findings to clinical care.
At Partners HealthCare, we’re committed to ensuring everyone has access to the care they need – whether male or female. “We are determined to shine a light on this disparity in biomedical research and work to correct its consequences,” said Johnson. “What is at stake, quite literally, is not only the overall heath of women but the integrity of medical research and the health of the economy already overburdened by the enormous cost of fighting disease.”
Watch Dr. Johnson's TED talk.