Mind the gap: The true extent of neglect in women’s health research

March 15, 2024
Business Affairs Women's Health
Sarah Nurgat
By Sarah Nurgat

For decades, studies and commentators have spoken of the neglect of women’s health in medical research. But as with any such received wisdom, regular critical appraisal is essential to ensure that conclusions are based on comprehensive research from reputable sources.

Gender-related health inequalities are not homogenous around the world. In fact, in countries where stereotypical gender roles are strongest, women tend to have healthier lifestyle habits, being less prone to smoking, alcohol and substance abuse, for instance. Nevertheless, while female life expectancy is higher in some countries, over half of the G20 countries studied in a 2020 analysis had healthier men than women.

As this example highlights, it is important that positions are tested and validated to prevent any progress from being undermined. This will also help to ensure that women are not further exploited as commercial activity accelerates.

Women’s health: a balanced view
There are various measures that can be used to investigate the extent to which women’s health is (under)researched, such as the number of research papers published and the amount of funding dedicated to women’s health versus male-specific conditions. To give just one example, in the five years from 2014, the UK Medical Research Council spent the same amount on women’s health as on cardiovascular disease (£96 million out of an overall annual budget of £325 million for health research).

However, these measures do not paint the full picture, as they do not take into account the incidence and impact of individual diseases. They also fail to consider conditions that disproportionately affect women or are experienced differently by women.

In an attempt to obtain a more accurate picture, a 2023 assessment based on a study by US applied mathematician Arthur Mirin applied a ‘disease burden’ approach, looking at the amount of death and disability caused by diseases. This revealed that “Of the conditions that are dominant in one sex, those that create the highest burden, such as depression and headaches, tend to affect women more”. Going on to assess NIH funding allocation, the study concluded that “when ranked by funding amount, diseases that affect mainly women drop down. They are underfunded compared with the burden.”

Given the opportunity to improve quality and length of life for the greatest number of people, it makes sense for research funding to be allocated according to disease burden – in addition to other important factors such as urgency of need.

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