Recognizing Every Day as Women’s Health Research Day
By: Kathryn Schubert, CEO and President, Society for Women’s Health Research
January 25 marks Women’s Health Research Day, the anniversary of the implementation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Policy on Sex as a Biological Variable (SABV) in 2016. Women’s Health Research Day serves as an opportunity to reflect on how far women’s health research has come — and how far we have to go.
Historically, women’s health has received less attention, research, and funding, which continues to impact women’s health outcomes today. The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) was founded in 1990 to close these gaps. The Society advocated for the passage of the SABV policy in 2015 and other fundamental women’s health policies before it, such as the 1993 NIH Revitalization Act and the establishment of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health in the early 1990s.
Strides have undoubtedly been made, but there remain glaring gaps in women’s health research. Moreover, women are sicker than ever — and they’re getting sicker. What does this look like on the ground? Women represent two-thirds of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Maternal death rates have more than doubled in the United States from 1999-2019, with Black mothers at a higher risk of maternal death. 80 percent of patients diagnosed with autoimmune diseases are women. Of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, eight million are women. Women pay a total of $15.4 billion more than men on annual out-of-pocket medical expenses. Women make up three out of every four migraine sufferers. Women — and diverse populations of women — are underrepresented in key areas of research, including neurology and cardiovascular health.
Looking back on the COVID-19 pandemic, we also saw disparities in caring for women. During the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, we saw pregnant and lactating individuals left out of early vaccine trials, leading to a limited understanding of vaccine impacts on their health; impaired health care decision-making; and increased COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among these populations of pregnant people. The maternal and infant health crisis worsened during the pandemic. Data show more than three women died from childbirth each day in 2021 despite four in five pregnancy-related deaths being preventable, and there were higher hospitalization rates of pregnant people due to the virus.
Elevating and tackling these issues in a coordinated way is long overdue. For that reason, we were glad to see the announcement from the Biden-Harris Administration about the first-ever White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research in November 2023, aimed at spurring innovation, closing research gaps, and improving women’s health. This is an important signal from the White House that women’s health research has been overlooked and deserves increased national attention. We hope that this Initiative will lead to policies that will help close knowledge gaps and lead to equity and parity in health and health care for women.
With this renewed attention to women’s health and our ongoing collaborations with other leaders across health care, SWHR is excited about the future of women’s health research. Some of our recent work aimed at addressing women’s health across the lifespan includes:
- Menopause wellness at work. Our work in menopause has included calling for increased menopause research funding (we were glad to see the reintroduction of the Menopause Research and Equity Act in late 2023, spearheaded by Rep. Yvette Clarke) and improving tools to support individuals in the menopause transition at work. We conducted a menopause workplace survey in 2023 and found that two out of five women considered finding or found a new job due to their menopause symptoms or experience.
- Cardiovascular disease in women. In partnership with our peers in the heart health space, we are continually thinking about ways to improve women’s heart health outcomes — spanning prevention, research, clinical care, and education. As part of this work, SWHR released a cardiovascular disease fact sheet in fall 2023 and will be releasing a Heart Health Policy Agenda this spring.
- The burden of obesity for women. There has been a novel focus on obesity in recent months. SWHR looks forward to convening interdisciplinary, inter-sector experts for a roundtable this spring to explore obesity’s impact on women, including its impact on cardiovascular health, as well as issues with access to obesity medications.
As we enter 2024, there are myriad opportunities to improve health care access, invest in research and innovation that could improve health outcomes for women, empower patients, and ensure clinicians have the tools and training they need to serve women and their families. However, this work is only as strong as the perspectives and insights that inform it. SWHR is always looking to collaborate with partners and peer organizations in the public health and scientific community. Please join us in making women’s health mainstream and making every day Women’s Health Research Day.
To learn more about SWHR and join us in our work in advance women’s health research through science, policy, and education, please visit swhr.org.