If being a woman is bad for your health, what can pharma do about it?

If being a woman is bad for your health, what can pharma do about it?

By Leith's Head of Strategic Partnerships, Pamela Brankin

Since the dawn of time, being female has been a definite health hazard. Childbirth, witch trials, lung-crushing corsets, deadly lead-based whitening make-up, and mouse-hair eyebrows – you name it, the female sex has put up with a LOT.

You might think that in the more enlightened 21st century, things would be looking up for women. I mean, medical science has moved on dramatically since Hippocrates declared that any number of female maladies could be explained by a “wandering womb” that could be lured back into position by applying pleasant scents to the vagina. Hmmm.

We can roll our eyes at such ancient theories. But, maddeningly, women are still on the receiving end of some pretty shocking – and relatively unknown – health inequalities based on misunderstandings of the differences between female and male physiology, gender bias, expression of symptoms, and response to treatment.

Not only is this shocking, it has serious consequences.

From the mother who dies of a heart attack, having dismissed days of symptoms because she didn’t have chest pain, to the thousands of endometriosis sufferers who wait an average of 7.5 years to get a formal diagnosis, being female literally means being treated differently.

This isn’t just a medical issue. It’s a public health issue with far reaching impacts on families, the economy and society as a whole.

Invisible Women

The publication of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women earlier this year revealed that, in today’s data-driven world, largely male researchers, planners, policy makers and politicians are turning a blind eye to women’s needs; health and otherwise.

Criado Perez searingly demonstrates that a world designed by and around men is literally costing women their health and lives.

For the health and pharma industry, this opens up a powerful opportunity: what if we can reduce suffering for half the population by designing more effective health communications specifically for and about women?

How many lives could be saved by the widespread dissemination of thoughtful, effective communications which clearly demonstrate that women experience heart attacks as a collection of symptoms which includes stomach pain, breathlessness, nausea, and fatigue?

It’s not the public’s fault they don’t know about heart symptoms in women. It’s just that men’s symptoms have, for decades, been publicised as ‘everyone’s symptoms’, when they’re not. Everyone needs to know the different set of symptoms women experience around heart attacks – so they know when to act fast, seek medical help, or give CPR if a woman goes into cardiac arrest.

And heart attack symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2015, the US National Institutes of Health introduced a policy that requires medical researchers to take sex into consideration as a biological variable when applying for funding. It will take time to understand the impact of this policy on research outcomes, but it’s likely that we’re about to learn a whole lot more about the world’s population – not just the 50.5% of it that’s male. Much like ‘one size fits all’ medications, the days of generic health communications are numbered.

Reaching specific target audiences with tailored health campaigns is nothing new. But healthcare is changing. No longer a strictly top-down service, patients are increasingly empowered by their own research and are demanding the most effective treatments. To do so, they need to understand their symptoms and treatment options more than ever before.

This gives us a real opportunity to make a difference to how women experience healthcare. By focusing communications around the existing evidence of how symptoms manifest differently in men and women, and arming women with the language they need to make sure that these symptoms aren’t dismissed by doctors, we could go a long way towards mitigating the serious, and sometimes fatal, biases that currently exist. And we can ensure that when it comes to healthcare, women become less invisible – and all without the need for mouse-hair eyebrows.