Women’s Health: Gender Differences and Gender Gaps in Healthcare

*The translation of this article in French, German, Portuguese and Spanish has been made through machine translation and has not been edited yet. we apologise for any inaccuracies.

How do gender gaps and gender differences impact women’s health outcomes? Do healthcare professionals observe gender disparities in their clinical practices? In our latest M3 Pulse survey, we asked over 3200 healthcare professionals about disparities in female-specific healthcare. Read the full results and learn more about gender disparities in healthcare.

The significance of improving women’s health outcomes has been a long-standing debate, but in recent years, there has been an increased focus on gender disparities in healthcare. Gender gaps and gender differences are some important factors that impact women’s health outcomes. These healthcare disparities, rooted in biological gender variations and gaps in healthcare research, data collection, and clinical practices, have sparked global conversations regarding their effects on healthcare delivery, healthcare outcomes, and how to address these disparities.

What do you think about gender disparities and gender gaps in healthcare as a healthcare professional? Leave a comment in the section below.

Women’s Health

Biological Gender Differences in Healthcare

Sex differences play a crucial role in healthcare, extending well beyond the obvious anatomical distinctions between men and women. These differences encompass a complex interplay of biological, genetic, and hormonal factors that can profoundly influence health outcomes and healthcare needs.

One of the key aspects of sex differences in healthcare lies in disease susceptibility. Biological variations between men and women can result in differences in how they respond to various diseases and health conditions. For instance, autoimmune diseases like lupus are more prevalent in women, suggesting that sex-related factors may contribute to the development of these conditions.

The progression of certain diseases can differ based on gender. Cardiovascular diseases, for example, may manifest differently in men and women. This can lead to disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of heart-related issues, as healthcare providers may not always recognise these gender-specific variations.

Another critical aspect is how individuals of different sexes respond to medications and treatments. Biological disparities can affect how drugs are metabolised, their side effects, and their overall efficacy. As a result, the same treatment may produce different outcomes in men and women, highlighting the importance of personalised healthcare approaches.

women's health

History of Addressing Gender Disparities in Healthcare

Efforts to promote women’s inclusion in clinical research began during the women’s health movement in the 1970s.* However, in 1977, the FDA recommended excluding women of childbearing potential from Phase I and early Phase II drug trials due to concerns arising from the thalidomide tragedy. Thalidomide caused severe limb deformities in babies born to women who took the drug during pregnancy. This caution led to broad restrictions, including the exclusion of women using contraception, single women, and those whose partners had vasectomies.

Protests and advocacy emerged in response to women’s exclusion from early drug trials, pushing for women’s right to choose participation. In 1986, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a policy encouraging women’s inclusion in studies, leading to the launch of the Women’s Health Initiative in 1991.

The shift from policy to law occurred in 1993 when Congress incorporated the NIH inclusion policy into federal law through the NIH Revitalization Act. This law mandated women and minorities’ participation in clinical research, analysed gender differences, and discouraged cost-based exclusions.

The Office of Research on Women’s Health (ORWH) has monitored compliance since 1994, with NIH publishing annual reports on supported research activities and outcomes.

gender disparities in healthcare

Bias Healthcare Research and Gender-Specific Data

Historical research bias has been a fundamental issue. Clinical trials and medical studies have historically excluded or underrepresented women, resulting in healthcare interventions and treatment guidelines that may not fully account for women’s unique physiological and hormonal differences. For example, cardiovascular clinical trials have often enrolled predominantly male participants, potentially leading to sex-specific differences in treatment effectiveness. This historical bias has had real-world consequences for women’s health.

A study published in Contemporary Clinical Trials between 2016 and 2019 highlighted concerning gender gaps in research related to critical disease areas: cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorders, and cancer.*

The lack of sex-disaggregated data poses a significant challenge in addressing gender disparities. This absence refers to the lack of information that distinguishes between men and women in healthcare datasets and research. In some cases, healthcare data is collected and analysed without considering potential gender differences. This omission presents a considerable obstacle in understanding and addressing gender disparities in healthcare.

Without gender-specific data, it becomes challenging to identify patterns and differences in health outcomes between men and women. For instance, if a medical study or healthcare system does not separate data by gender, it may not capture variations in disease prevalence, treatment responses, or health outcomes specific to one gender. This lack of distinction can obscure vital insights into how diseases affect men and women differently. Therefore, collecting and analysing comprehensive gender-specific data is a fundamental step in addressing and rectifying gender disparities in healthcare.

gender differences

Gender Disparities in Clinical Practice

Another critical concern is diagnostic and treatment bias. Gender differences in symptom presentation and disease manifestations can result in underdiagnosis or misdiagnosis. Studies and medical literature have highlighted disparities in diagnosis and treatment based on gender, revealing the need for more tailored approaches to healthcare.*

Diagnostic and treatment bias refers to the unequal or biased way in which healthcare providers assess and manage medical conditions based on a patient’s gender. This bias can manifest in different ways and can have significant implications for patient care.

Many medical conditions can present differently in men and women. For instance, heart disease, one of the leading causes of death, often displays different symptoms in women compared to men. While chest pain is a common symptom in men, women may experience subtler symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, or pain in the back or jaw. Healthcare providers who are unaware of these gender-specific differences may not consider heart disease as a potential diagnosis in women, leading to underdiagnosis, misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis.

gender gaps

M3 Pulse Results: Do Healthcare Professionals Observe Gender Disparities in Female-Specific Healthcare?

In September, the M3 Pulse survey was conducted with over 3200 healthcare professionals who are M3 panel members, to gain insights into their observations regarding gender disparities in female-specific healthcare within their clinical practice.

See the full M3 Pulse results below:

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M3 Pulse is a one-question online survey we conduct every month with our M3 panel members. It´s a fun and easy way to share your opinions about trending healthcare topics with a global community of healthcare professionals. If you want to participate in this month´s M3 Pulse, register and join the M3 panel today.

A total of 49% of the respondents have observed gender disparities in their clinical practices, with 26% indicating disparities in female-specific healthcare were frequent in their clinical practices. The other 23% expressed there are notable disparities in female-specific healthcare that require immediate attention. This highlights the acknowledgement of gender disparities in healthcare delivery, indicating that improvements are needed.

36% of the healthcare professionals responded they had not observed any significant disparities in female-specific healthcare in their practices. Whereas 14% of the respondents believe female-specific healthcare is provided equitably, with no gender gaps. This indicates a level of confidence in the fairness of clinical practices regarding women’s health.

Do you agree as a healthcare professional? Are there gender disparities in healthcare? Leave a comment in the section below and share this article with a colleague via social media:

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