Women’s health research has come a long way, but inequities remain

With Women’s Health Research Month coming to an end, those working in the field say there’s still more work to be done — year-round.

Cally Wesson, president and CEO of the BC Women’s Health Foundation, says while we’ve come a long way, there are still challenges when it comes to women’s health research.

“I don’t think you can talk about women’s health without talking about health inequity,” Wesson said. “When you look at things as simple as human clinical trials, women, up until the 90s, were not included in human clinical trials. We know our physiology is different, we know we have more adverse reactions to drugs, prescription medicine, so it’s really important that we continue to focus on women’s health and focus on different areas in women’s health.”

Cally Wesson is the president and CEO of the BC Women's Health Foundation

BC Women’s Health Foundation President and CEO Cally Wesson. (Courtesy BC Women’s Health Foundation)

According to the BC Women’s Health Foundation, less than eight per cent of national funding goes to women’s health research topics.

But Dr. Lori Brotto, executive director of the Women’s Health Research Institute, tells CityNews that inequities go beyond funding.

“Women in science make 20 per cent less than men, their grants are of shorter duration, the grant amounts are usually $50,000 per year less than men, and then when we look within that population of women who are doing the science on women’s health, a tiny proportion are Indigenous, Black, and women of colour,” she explained.

“As a result of that, what we’re seeing is, number one, less diversity on teams. Of course, we have resounding evidence that diversity on teams actually creates better science, which leads to better innovations. We’re actually stifling progress when we don’t include racially, ethnically, ability diverse, and all other markers of women as well.”

Brotto says a lack of diversity also means we often don’t see research that is specific to those topics, such as work on migrant women’s health.

The BC Women’s Health Foundation says though women have unique needs, research has typically focused mostly on men.

Dr. Lori Brotto is the executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute

Women’s Health Research Institute Executive Director Dr. Lori Brotto. (Courtesy UBC)

Brotto notes not putting an emphasis on women-specific research, not having diversity on teams, and not funding this kind of work can have detrimental effects.

“You see this whole trickle-down effect into more and more areas of women’s health that we know less about when we don’t diversify our teams. But the systems don’t encourage and support the inclusion of those people of colour as well,” she said.

“We can do nerve-sparing surgeries for prostate cancer in men because the science and the anatomy and the understanding of men’s physiology has been in place for 20 years, yet there are many, many instances of surgeries on women … where much of that anatomy is still yet to be mapped out because the inclusion of female cadavers is also a relatively recent phenomenon.”

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Medications are a whole other beast. Both Wesson and Brotto note women respond differently to medication than men do — but the research doesn’t always focus on those differences.

Brotto says many medications that are still being used today were the result of trials that either didn’t include women or that didn’t factor in the differences in women’s and men’s physiologies.

That can affect things like dosage or even deciding when to prescribe certain drugs.

“We call it sex disaggregated, which means we’re not looking at how we should be providing care differently for women than men, and women inevitably suffer when that’s the case,” Brotto said.

A path forward

While Wesson and Brotto note there has been a lot of progress made over the years, there is still a long way to go when it comes to equity in women’s health research.

Pointing to the fraction of national funding that goes toward women’s health research, Wesson says it’s crucial we get those numbers up.

“Simply by donating or supporting women’s health research, you are making a difference,” she said. “One of the things our foundation is really big on is supporting the Women’s Health Research Institute and catalyst grants. So, these are our scientists who have really great ideas but they need that seed funding. By making that commitment — a catalyst grant is $28,000 — you’re allowing someone to explore something that’s maybe never been discovered or maybe an idea that they know needs to be discovered. That will really help.”

Wesson says the Women’s Health Research Institute is also focused on knowledge translation — or getting important information out to the public.

You can find resources and information on a variety of topics through the Women’s Health Research Institute and BC Women’s Health Foundation.

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