Women's health research continues to focus on reproductive years only

Women’s health research continues to focus on reproductive years only

Research

When it comes to research on women’s health, the majority of papers focus on the reproductive years and particularly on pregnancy, with little attention paid to major causes of illness and death in women, according to a new study released this week.

Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health found that despite growing awareness of differences in how women experience medical conditions and the impact this has on diagnosis and treatment, the startling disproportional gap in research has increased over the past decade. 

“Historically, women’s health research has focused on reproductive health,” lead author Laura Hallam from The George Institute for Global Health said.

“However, noncommunicable diseases are now the leading cause of death and disability for women in most countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries.” 

Hallam believes that the focus on the so-called ‘bikini medicine’ comes from the mistaken belief that women’s health only differs from men’s in the parts of the body a bikini would cover.

“Sex and gender bias in research and health care can lead to poorer health outcomes for women, particularly in conditions not recognised as women’s health issues,” Hallam said. 

Researchers at The George Institute analysed the main health content of articles published in six women’s health journals and five leading general medical journals between 2010 and 2020 — categorising the life stage of each paper’s focus and the main medical area topics under study.

They compared their findings with the leading causes of disease in women, according to the Global Burden of Disease study.

Their research concluded that in 2010, over one third of the women’s health content in both sets of journals focused only on reproductive health. Ten years later, this figure had increased to just under half. 

Research that focused on non-communicable diseases in women decreased over the ten years in both types of journals.

During the ten years, cancer was the most covered non-communicable disease in women’s health journals at just over 40 percent, followed by mental illness and substance abuse at 22 percent.

Over 15 per cent of non-communicable disease articles were on Cardiovascular disease, while disorders of nerves and the nervous system made up just under 10 percent of all non-communicable disease articles.

“Overall, we found that many diseases that are actually contributing to considerable ill health and deaths in women, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and chronic lung diseases, were poorly covered in women’s health publications,” said Hallam.

“When we categorised the articles according to a woman’s life stage, we found that most were on pregnancy or the reproductive years, with very few articles on menopause.” 

“While women’s life expectancies are generally longer than men’s, women have fewer healthier years and high rates of disability in older age, so it’s important to look at health and well-being across the life span and study diseases that are more common in old age, that might impact women more.”

Hallam and her team of researchers found a very small number of articles that used a sex and/or gender-based analysis, confirming the need for it to be incorporated more frequently in health and medical research. 

Hallam believes the study shows “…there is much work to be done by journals, funders, and researchers to broaden understanding of women’s health.”

“Women of all ages [must be] appropriately and effectively served by scientific research and the health benefits that result from it,” she said.

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