CBS News Correspondent Lesley Stahl (left) speaks to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg about gender inequities in medical research.

On March 3, in a filled ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Boston, Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Women’s Health leaders, state and national representatives, and distinguished guests came together to discuss an urgent problem in biomedical science.

“We must face the hard truth: research in women’s health and gender differences lags far behind the research in men’s health care,” said U.S. Senator (MA) Elizabeth Warren, who provided keynote remarks. “And too often the policy conversation around women’s health lags as well. This must be addressed.”

Although 20 years have passed since the National Institutes of Health’s Revitalization Act became federal law – requiring the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research studies and the analysis of results by sex – a major gender gap still exists in medical research.

Convened by Paula Johnson, MD, MPH, executive director of BWH’s Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, “Charting the Course: A National Policy Summit on the Future of Women’s Health” explored the current state of medical research and how it is failing women.

“Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. today, yet only one third of the participants in related clinical trials are women, and only one quarter of those trials report outcomes by sex,” said Dr. Johnson. “We can do better.”

Added BWH President Betsy Nabel, MD: “This movement doesn’t just benefit women. It benefits men and our society as a whole as well.”

Lung cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s – these diseases and conditions all disproportionately affect women. However, studies either fail to include enough women or fail to report outcomes by sex.

“This is an equal rights issue as important as equal pay,” said Johnson. “Research on sex and gender differences must become the norm, not the exception, for us to achieve health equity and to improve health outcomes for women and men, now and in future generations. When we fail to routinely consider the impact of sex and gender in research, we are leaving women’s health to chance.”

The summit opened with the release of a research report entitled Sex-Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait, coauthored by Dr. Johnson; Therese Fitzgerald, PhD, MSW, Connors Center director of Policy and Advocacy; Jill Goldstein, PhD, MPH, Connors Center director of Research; Alina Salganicoff, PhD, of the Kaiser Family Foundation; and Susan Wood, PhD, of the Jacob’s Institute for Women’s Health at George Washington University. The report draws on numerous sources and, for the first time, aggregates existing evidence regarding scientific practices and sex differences.

The report states that the science that informs medicine – from basic science through clinical trials and evaluation – routinely fails to consider the crucial impact of sex and gender. It lays out a Women’s Health Equity Action Plan, which includes holding federal agencies accountable and promoting transparency and disclosure regarding the absence of sex-based evidence in research, drugs, and devices. The plan also calls for the expansion of sex-based research requirements and the adoption of clinical care practices and training that incorporate a sex-based lens in care and research.

According to Johnson, one of the simplest things women can do to take action and become informed is to ask their health care provider if a condition they have presents differently in men and women, or if a medication they are receiving affects men and women in a different way.

During her morning remarks, Sen. Warren shared a personal story about her mother, who died due to coronary disease that had gone undetected because “she was a woman” and heart disease “was considered a man’s disease,” said Warren.

“I have two granddaughters, and that will not be the world they live in,” Warren said.

Watch the video below for highlights of the Summit, and visit www.bwhevents.org/whs to read the report and to learn more about the event.
– Michelle C

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