Whilst a study by Manual, a male wellbeing platform, determined that men tend to face greater health risks in a majority of countries, this trend is not echoed in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the UK has “the largest female health gap in the G20 and the 12th largest globally”.
In her book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado-Perez highlights that evidence found in medical data revealed the intrinsically gendered nature of the medical sphere, which evidently operates through a lens that is fundamentally biased towards men. In consequence, women have been repeatedly under-represented in clinical trials, making the retrieved data an unreliable indicator of the efficacy and effects of drugs on women. Even a clinical trial focused around a drug intended solely for women was male-dominated, with 23 of the 25 participants being male. A study from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago found that women have a statistically higher chance of suffering from adverse side effects of medication as a result of the male bias in clinical trials which does not account for the reality that drug dosages are not a one size fits all approach.
This particular study discovered that when men and women were administered with an equal drug dose, women were found to have a higher concentration of the drug in their blood, which took a greater amount of time to leave their bodies. Additionally, in over 90% of cases, women reported side effects such as “nausea, headache[s], depression, cognitive deficits, seizures, hallucinations, agitation and cardiac anomalies”. Criado-Perez also points to a professional medical bias where medical research proposed by women, for the purpose of women’s health, does not receive the same financial support as medical research outlined by male professionals for men’s health.
The practical implications of a gendered angle in the medical profession translate into dangerous and unreliable advice for women suffering from troubling symptoms. The ‘GP at Hand’ app provided concrete evidence that women’s symptoms are systematically underestimated purely on account of their sex. It was discovered that if a patient types ‘chest pain’ into the app, it will ask for the patient’s age, whether they smoke, the location of the pain, whether the pain was sudden, and if it is coupled with nausea; however, results differ whether a male or female enters the information. A male patient is informed that he could be experiencing a panic attack or be suffering from gastritis and that he should seek urgent medical attention. The patient is furthermore told that he could be suffering several possible heart problems, including a heart attack and that it may be necessary to call for an ambulance. However, when a female patient enters the same information, the app informs her that there are only two potential causes for her symptoms: depression or a panic attack. This explicit bias in diagnosis makes it unsurprising that women are 50% more likely to be misdiagnosed after having suffered from a heart attack, and a study from the University of Leeds found that UK women specifically had “more than double the rate of death in the 30 days following a heart attack”.
The government’s ‘Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England’ is subsequently a welcomed – though overdue – step towards closing the gender health gap. A key move by the government has been announced in that they will be appointing a Women’s Health Ambassador to increase awareness surrounding women’s health and support the implementation of the strategies outlined in their vision. The latter is based upon the analysis of around 100,000 responses to a “call for evidence” survey which determined the following points: stigmas prevent women from seeking the healthcare they need; 8 in 10 women have experienced not being listened to by a healthcare professional; there is an overwhelming sense that female-only conditions are treated as lower priorities and there should be mandatory training on women’s health for GPs. The outlined ambitions aspire to ensure that women can comfortably discuss their health, access the services they need, be able to find reliable information on women’s health and that the government strives to “embed [a] routine collection of demographic data of participants in research trials to make sure that our research reflects the society we serve”. Senior NHS consultant and Medical Director at CREATE Fertility, Professor Geeta Nargund, argues that there must be a focus on addressing gynaecological conditions in a more prompt manner, whilst also working towards bettering the access to treatment for women of ethnic minorities. The full detail surrounding the action that the government will undertake to see through these goals, however, will be followed by the Women’s Health Strategy this spring.