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Excluding Women in Research Impacts Their Health for Decades to Come
In the 1950s, doctors prescribed many pregnant people with a sedative drug, thalidomide, which was used to relieve pregnancy-related nausea. Tragically, this drug caused thousands to give birth to babies with severe limb deformities. In the wake of this horrific accident, theresearch community took extreme steps to limit and exclude women from medical research. In the late 1970s, women of childbearing age were excluded from medical research, regardless of their intention or ability to have children. Instead of giving women the choice, a decision was made on their behalf under the guise of protection, which did nothing more than place their health at even greater risk. Without specific data on women, we lack critical informationto understand, prevent, and treat health conditions in women.
Excluding women in research evolves into a lack of acknowledgingdiseases that heavily affect women. A 2017 studyfound that over 45% of women were unaware heart disease is the number one killer of women, and the percentages were higher for Hispanic (73%) and Black women (55%).While chest pain is a typical indicator of a heart attack, women are more likely to have nausea, dizziness, or vomiting. The lack of women in heart disease research has created a societal norm where people automatically think ofchest pain as the first indicator of a heart attack. This ultimately putswomen’s health at risk and makes it difficultfor women and physicians to catch a heart attack early and reduce further health damagedue to the heart attack.
The lack of data on women means medical professionals are oftenunprepared to screen women for health conditions. Only 59% of cardiologists felt their medical training prepared them to screen women for risks of heart disease. In a medical field that focuses specifically on the heart, being unprepared to assess 51% of the population poses a massive health risk to women.
Without strong and consistent data, women will find it harder to battle social stigma and get physicians and society to prioritize their health over body image—Weight issues were rated as more of a concern than cardiovascular disease by both women and physicians. A social fascination with women’s weight and a lack of inclusive data leads to women being told to lose weight more often than being given a treatment for heart conditions, even when men of the same age and more overweight are likely to be given treatment.
Women must be accurately represented in all medical research. We needan increase in research focused specifically on women to compensate for the extreme historical lack of data on more than half the population.
Accurately representing women in data collection and medical research challengesa long-time male–dominated biology of disease, disease prevention, and treatment. We can begin to address health conditions that impactwomen when they areequitably representedin data collection and research.