Health and Healthcare Systems

Women's health: Why is the health of at least half the global population so often overlooked?

This image shows a woman receiving a vaccination, illustrating the importance of women’s health

Davos 2023: Why isn't women’s health always receiving the attention it deserves? Image: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Deeptha Khanna
Chief Business Leader, Personal Health; Executive Vice-President and Member of the Executive Committee, Royal Philips
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • There remains gender inequality in healthcare, we face wide gaps in research and treatment ability for areas that are unique to women.
  • Slow progress centres around a deficiency of funding and, subsequently, a scarcity of clinical research and data on women’s health issues.
  • By elevating the importance of women’s health, we can deliver better, more inclusive data and insights; more targeted, accessible solutions; and, enable better care for women worldwide.

Despite healthcare advances in the past few decades, we still face wide gaps in research and treatment ability for areas that are unique to women, such as maternal and menstrual health, as well as for conditions that present differently in women than men. These gaps can result in major health issues and disparities in treatment that are largely preventable. The CDC, for example, states that four out of five pregnancy-related deaths in the US are preventable and black women are nearly three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.

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    Pervasive gender inequality in healthcare

    This gender health gap is not a new topic. Gender discrepancies within healthcare have made many headlines in recent years. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that although women in the European Union live longer than men, they spend more of their lives in poor health. While these findings gained a lot of attention at the time, they failed to spur the momentum needed to make a critical, material change to prioritise women’s health.

    Healthy life years and years of ill health of women and men, by EU Member State (in years), 2016. Note: ‘Years of ill health’ is defined as a difference between ‘life expectancy at birth’ and ‘healthy life years.’ Healthy life years and years of ill health add up to expected life expectancy at birth.
    Healthy life years and years of ill health of women and men, by EU Member State (in years), 2016. Note: ‘Years of ill health’ is defined as a difference between ‘life expectancy at birth’ and ‘healthy life years.’ Healthy life years and years of ill health add up to expected life expectancy at birth. Image: European Institute for Gender Equality, Gender Equality Index 2019. Work-life balance

    One of the larger issues at play is that prevention for women’s health issues has historically been less of a focus than intervention-based services. This was made explicit during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it exacerbated critical disparities and exposed key gaps in healthcare policies and systems.

    Over the last two years, our vulnerable populations have been most impacted – especially women and children. In the maternal health space, for example, many expectant mothers couldn’t visit their physician or midwife for regular, preventative checkups due to a lack of transportation; it was hard to find childcare; and, in some countries, a lack of awareness around the importance of these routine maternal-health examinations. Without these proactive health check-ins, there was a bigger risk to high-risk pregnancies and, sadly, we saw an increase in stillborn deaths.

    Awareness and recognition of the importance of women’s health – and preventative health at large – has continued to increase in the wake of the pandemic, offering us a more momentous opportunity than ever before to systemically address gender inequality in healthcare.

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    Closing the women’s health gap

    The solutions to closing the women's health gap are not revolutionary. Slow progress largely centres around a deficiency of funding and, subsequently, a scarcity of clinical research and data on women’s health issues. Historically, the medical system’s approach has been more of a patriarchal investigation into the human body, with data and results stemming from male-only testing and trials. It may come as a surprise that including female participants in clinical studies only started in the late 1980s and was only made mandatory in the US in 1993, per National Institutes of Health guidelines.

    This gender bias in medicine puts women at risk. There’s a sizeable gap in the understanding of what we know about the female body. Even some 30 years later, the scales remain out of balance. For example, as shared in Harvard Health, 70% of those affected by chronic pain conditions are women, whereas 80% of pain research is conducted on males. Other studies show that resources are often disproportionately allocated to diseases that primarily affect men.

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    What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

    Technology could help beat gender inequalities

    Digital solutions and the rise of consumer tech offer hope, particularly in supporting maternal health. For example, at Philips, we are working to close the gender health gap by harnessing this technology to improve health outcomes for women and girls worldwide – from making a difference in obstetrics and gynaecology to cardiology and cancer care.

    Remote fetal monitoring in the home, low-cost hand-held ultrasounds and apps that provide access to on-the-go blood pressure measurements are game-changers for at-risk pregnancies and are empowering clinicians and communities around the world who face barriers to accessing healthcare. Our decades of research and development illustrate our commitment to preventative healthcare and early detection of disease, both critical for improving the state of women’s health. Bridging the gender health gap globally, however, requires systemic change. We all can and must do more.

    The private sector has a responsibility to collaborate closely with policymakers to increase funding and ensure more clinical studies include women. We also need to take a hard look at gender bias in our scientific studies and supporting technology to ensure they really are achieving female-comprehensive results. Behind the scenes, our research and development teams must consist of diverse, gender-balanced teams who can take a critical look at the results to reduce AI and algorithm bias.

    Lastly, as individuals and organizations, we must work together to put gender health equality at the top of the agenda in a post-pandemic era. The lessons we have learned have the power to transform the future of healthcare.

    By elevating the importance of women’s health across the entire health industry, capital sector and governments, we can deliver better, more inclusive data and insights; more targeted, accessible solutions; and, ultimately, enable better care for women worldwide.

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