Bridging the gender gap in health research

By prioritising women’s health, we can create a future where health equity is a reality

Updated - March 08, 2024 02:06 pm IST

Published - March 08, 2024 01:03 am IST

On this International Women’s Day, we must scrutinise the path towards gender parity, especially within healthcare. File

On this International Women’s Day, we must scrutinise the path towards gender parity, especially within healthcare. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

As of 2023, there were 4 billion women in the world, accounting for approximately 49.75% of the population. Despite this, it is unfortunate that our approach to health and well-being has been shadowed by a deep-seated gender bias. For far too long, women’s health has been confined to gynaecological and reproductive issues.

Moreover, the historical bias in medical research, favouring the male body as the standard, has resulted in dire consequences. Women face disproportionate risks in various health domains, from disability and obesity to cardiovascular health. Additionally, systemic biases in data collection perpetuate these disparities, leading to misdiagnoses, ineffective treatments, and unnecessary suffering. On this International Women’s Day, we must scrutinise the path towards gender parity, especially within healthcare.

The recently released World Economic Forum’s report, ‘Closing the Women’s Health Gap’, underscored the profound disparity between men’s and women’s health worldwide. It elucidated historical neglect in women’s health research, funding, and policymaking, and highlighted the need for a global effort to address the women’s health gap by urging governments, the private sector, and civil society to realign their strategies with a gender-sensitive approach. A definitive, oft-reiterated point is that by prioritising women’s health, we can create a future where health equity is a reality. Likewise, in India, several research studies have observed that many Indians have genetic variations that make them more susceptible to certain diseases. For example, Indians have higher levels of insulin resistance than Caucasians, which is a major reason for the increased prevalence of type 2 diabetes in this population.

Also read | Study highlights gender gap in health innovations

Therefore, regarding health research, to effect meaningful change, we must undertake concrete actions. First, we need to champion the analysis of gender differences in clinical trials. Going forward, it is imperative that all clinical trials diligently analyse and report gender-specific findings to tailor treatments effectively. Second, we must advocate for including gender differences on drug labels, including information on safe use during pregnancy. Empowering healthcare providers and patients with this information enhances treatment decisions and fosters a more inclusive healthcare landscape. Third, we must prioritise the recruitment of women in clinical trials. Ensuring adequate representation is not just a matter of fairness but a necessity to understand treatment efficacy across diverse populations. Fourth, it is imperative that we delve into data with a gender lens. By dissecting data through the prism of gender, we uncover nuances crucial for refining healthcare strategies. This could be different patterns of disease, divergent responses to treatment, and different safety profiles. Finally, it is important to embrace precise terminology on sex and gender. Clear and accurate language fosters understanding and inclusivity, laying the foundation for more effective healthcare communication.

It’s equally crucial to encourage the participation of more women in the research and scientific arenas. The unique insights and experiences women bring can enrich our understanding and approach to health challenges, fostering a more inclusive, women-centric perspective in research. Women’s inclusion is essential in dismantling the one-size-fits-all approach that has dominated medical research, allowing for the development of more nuanced, effective healthcare solutions that benefit everyone.

Above all, it is vital to note that these actions are not just about ticking boxes; they’re about building a future where healthcare truly serves everyone with compassion, insight, and equity.

Good health is a fundamental human right. It is time to dismantle the invisible barriers hindering equitable healthcare access. By bridging the gender gap in health research and practice, we pave the way for a future founded on equality and fairness. This issue transcends gender —it is about reshaping healthcare systems to serve everyone equitably and effectively.

Preetha Reddy is Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals Group

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