Closing the Gap
A step in the right direction
This week the UK government published its first ever Women’s Health Strategy. The ambition to tackle the gender health gap, which results in women spending larger proportions of their lives in ill health even though they live longer, has been long awaited.
And how do we explain this health gap? Somewhat shockingly, the US government only lifted its ban on women participating in clinical research in 1993. Dr Janine Clayton, Associate Director for Women’s Health Research at the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that “we literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology”. Meanwhile, in the UK, studies have suggested that gender biases in clinical trials are resulting in worse health outcomes for women overall. The health gap is not only reflected in the scientific research, but also in the quality of care that women receive. For instance, women with dementia receive worse medical treatment in comparison to men. They also have to wait longer to receive painkillers post-prescription, are half as likely to receive them after surgery, and get overlooked for female-specific conditions.
So, if even from a basic research and healthcare perspective, we have collected far less data on the female body than the male, then how are our medicines, methods of care, and outcome measurements ever going to work for ‘the other half’ of the world’s population? It is of little surprise that there is a gender-based health gap.
Nevertheless, it’s important to appreciate that there is hope. The government’s new strategy represents ambition to tackle the systemic issues within the NHS and is a vital step forward. Fortunately, the need for healthcare reform aimed at closing the gender health gap is now reflected from within the population itself. Today, women account for 44% of the life sciences field in the UK and in 2020 the country saw a 24% increase in women working in STEM.
The market is ready to close the gap too; in the booming femtech industry – now a 40-billion-dollar market globally. It is estimated that by 2027, it will be worth more than $65 billion. Investors are starting to appreciate the opportunity that femtech presents, and in 2021, for the first time, over $1 billion was invested into the industry. Since its inception, only $14 billion of investment had been recorded in the femtech industry, so 2021’s accolades certainly represent not only a newfound interest in the area, but even the significant need to shift to more patient-centric healthcare.
The investment is also backed by the fact that women are 75% more likely to use digital health technology than men. Although more research is needed to understand why that is, it seems that health technologies are more likely to be taken up by women – providing a fertile ground for the burgeoning and exciting femtech industry.
The Government’s Plan
The Women’s Health Strategy, proceeding after last year’s government consultation, looks to tackle key systemic challenges that widen the gender health gap by:
- Committing to new research and data gathering
- Expanding women’s health-focused education and training for incoming doctors
- Improving fertility services
- Ensuring women have access to high quality health information
- Updating guidance for female-specific health conditions like endometriosis
It outlines seven key ‘women’s’ health areas it will focus on in the coming years: menstrual health and gynaecology, fertility, pregnancy; pregnancy loss and postnatal support; the menopause; mental health and wellbeing, cancer; health effects of violence against women and girls; and healthy ageing and long-term conditions. It also commits to invest £127 million to increase and support the NHS’s maternity workforce, allocates £10 million for the breast screening programme to provide additional screening units, and dedicates £302 million in family hubs across the country.
Interestingly, only three out of seven of these key health areas outlined above are focused on reproductive health, highlighting what many have hitherto ignored – women’s health and wellbeing goes way beyond reproductive health and must be given due, female-specific attention.
For instance, more than twice as many women die each year in the UK from coronary heart and circulatory disease than breast cancer. Women are also more likely to die from a heart attack than men because the symptoms for heart attacks available in guidance, are actually the symptoms of heart attacks in males. An important illustration of really significant gender-based health inequalities that are not connected to a woman’s reproductive system.
While the government’s Women’s Health Strategy is a long-awaited and welcomed effort, it will be in the detail and effective implementation of these changes that will really address women’s experiences and health outcomes. However, the Women’s Health Strategy, the increase of women in STEM, and the market’s receptiveness to women-only solutions are imperative. They represent an important step in placing gender equal health at the heart of the health and care system, and thus our wider society.
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