Health and Healthcare Systems

Ushering in a new era of investment for the health of women

Reducing the women's health gap improves lives and can potentially unlock a $ 1 trillion GDP opportunity annually by 2040.

Reducing the women's health gap improves lives and can potentially unlock a $ 1 trillion GDP opportunity annually by 2040. Image: Unsplash/Accuray

Lucy Perez
Senior Partner, McKinsey & Company
Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • A new analysis from the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Health Institute shows how improving women's health can significantly boost GDP.
  • Enhancing women’s health benefits individual women and helps families, communities, organizations and the global economy.
  • In recognition of the importance of addressing the gender health gap, the World Economic Forum is launching the Global Alliance for Women's Health.

Reducing the women’s health gap improves lives and can potentially unlock a $ 1 trillion GDP opportunity annually by 2040, according to a new analysis from the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the McKinsey Health Institute. Together, they reveal the incredible avenues for creating meaningful global change.

Most of us are familiar with the trope that women live longer than men. While this is true, it obscures the full picture. While women live longer than men, they spend 25% more of their lives in poorer health, grappling with a higher share of debilitating conditions, such as rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, atrial fibrillation or endometriosis. The women’s health gap equates to 75 million years of life lost due to poor health or early death annually. This toll doesn’t exist in a silo: every person and every economy is impacted by this loss. Enhancing women’s health benefits individuals and helps families, communities, organizations and the global economy.

That’s why the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Health Institute partnered on a study to shed some light on the root causes of the women’s health gap and how it might be narrowed. For many, the revelatory moment lies in understanding that typical female-only conditions, such as gynaecological diseases, sexual and reproductive health and maternal, newborn and child health, account for only 5% of the women’s health burden. The remaining 95% of the women’s health burden stems from conditions affecting both women and men.

Over half of this burden arises from health conditions that are more prevalent and/or exhibiting different manifestations in women, but where for the most part sex-based differences are not well understood and/or accounted for. This lack of understanding partly reflects how the study of human biology defaults to the male body, which hinders understanding of sex-based biological differences and results in many treatments being less effective for women than for men.

Historically, men have led and been the subject of the study of medicine and biology. Most animal models have been done on male specimens, which still prevails today. Questions around sex-based differences were rarely investigated or recorded, with the assumption – now known to be false – that there are few important differences in the functioning of organs and systems in men and women beyond reproduction. This has resulted in ~65% of interventions (which have sex-disaggregated research) being less effective for women than men.

Examples include combined inhalers for asthma, which have a 20ppt lower effectiveness for women than men; or biological drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, which are 24ppt less effective for women than men. This problem also manifests in medication effectiveness: an analysis of all medicines withdrawn for safety reasons – a process that requires objective scientific review – shows that, since 1980, products are 3.5 times more likely to be removed because of safety risks in women patients as compared to men.

Women also encounter greater barriers to care, experience diagnostic delays and receive suboptimal treatment. Out-of-pocket expenses tend to be higher. Women often confront barriers, stigma and bias in healthcare systems designed and managed by men, leading to a lower likelihood of receiving equal interventions for a given disease. For instance, men are over three times more likely to receive cardiac resynchronization therapy to control arrhythmia compared to women.

Addressing affordability and access

Addressing affordability and access could counteract the rise in healthcare costs, while benefiting patients and insurance providers. Models, such as Value-Based Care, could offer a holistic and patient-centric approach, providing faster diagnoses, reducing costs for healthcare systems or payers and ultimately improving outcomes for conditions such as endometriosis, which often require extensive time, multiple tests and consultations before diagnosis.

Moreover, there has been lower investment in women's health conditions relative to their prevalence. This contributes to a reinforcing cycle of limited scientific understanding of women’s bodies and limited data to de-risk new investments. Global life sciences R&D efforts primarily focus on conditions with a high contribution of years of life lost to the overall disease-adjusted life years. This has often disadvantaged women and girls because they have a higher probability of being affected by conditions that affect quality of life (years lived with a disability) rather than length of life. Even in the digital healthcare space, FemTech companies received only 3% of the total digital health funding.

Finally: data. Stakeholders cannot address what they cannot measure and health burdens for women are systematically underestimated, with datasets that exclude or undervalue important conditions. Only ~50% of health interventions show disaggregated data by sex. The women’s health burden is undercounted owing to low diagnosis rates. Late — or lack of diagnosis — might mean conditions are absent from claims data and will be overlooked. A Danish study across the span of 21 years showed that women were diagnosed later than men for more than 700 diseases. For cancer, it took women two and a half more years to be diagnosed. For diabetes, the delay was four and a half years. Our reference points for global data on menopause — which includes how it reduces productivity at work and may contribute to premature departure from the workforce are highly underestimated.

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Investing in women-centric healthcare

Fortunately, this gap is addressable. To improve health equity and foster economic growth, stakeholders need to develop a cooperative and comprehensive strategy that includes investing in women-centric research to fill the knowledge and data gaps in women-specific conditions, as well as in diseases affecting women differently and/or disproportionately. Health stakeholders should systematically collect and analyse sex-, ethnicity- and gender-specific data for a more accurate representation of the women’s health burden and the impact of interventions.

Wide opportunities exist to enhance access to sex-specific care, from prevention to diagnosis and treatment, including adjusting medical school curricula to educate on sex-based differences. Financing models, such as tax incentives for women’s health programmes or investments that are based on having sex-disaggregated data, can act as incentives. In all organizations, leaders can establish proven business policies that support women’s health at work.

Closing the women’s health gap is an opportunity that improves lives and livelihoods, it could add seven more days of healthy living for each woman annually, bring at least $1 trillion to the global economy by 2040 and it could generate the equivalent impact of 137 million women accessing full-time positions by 2040. For every $1 invested in women’s health, ~$3 is projected in economic growth.

Launching the Global Alliance for Women's Health

This opportunity will be seized by those who care about health equity and recognize the economic potential. In this context, the World Economic Forum is launching the Global Alliance for Women's Health, which reflects a recognition of the importance of addressing the gender health gap and the potential benefits of investing in women's health.

By establishing a multi-sector global platform, the alliance can bring together various stakeholders, including philanthropies, governments, businesses, NGOs and healthcare professionals, to collaborate on strategies and actions that promote and improve women's health worldwide.

The emphasis on evidence-based approaches suggests a commitment to data-driven decision-making, which can lead to more effective and targeted interventions. Investing in women's health is often seen as a key factor in promoting individual well-being and broader societal and economic development. Healthy women are better positioned to contribute to their communities and economies, leading to positive ripple effects.

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