Women may live longer, but that may be in spite of, rather than because of, their healthcare.
The second Women’s Health Empowerment Summit, held by Hadassah at the Capital Hilton in Washington last week, explored the gender disparities in healthcare and urged women to advocate for themselves and their communities.
The three main areas explored in panel discussions were caregiving, mental health and clinical trials. Sixty-six percent of caregivers are women, according to a 2015 study, and more than one quarter of them decreased their work hours or passed up a job promotion to do so.
In mental health, women are 40 percent more likely to develop depression and twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD. And in treatment, women weren’t even allowed to participate in clinical trials until 1953 and are still underrepresented in those trials today, the experts at the summit said.
Women are often not believed when they talk about chronic symptoms, said many of the doctors and advocates. For instance, 1 in 10 women has endometriosis — an often painful disorder in which tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside the uterus — but it takes an average of 11 years in the United States to get a diagnosis.
And it can be harder to seek a diagnosis for a mental illness than for a physical illness, said Jennifer Payne, director of Women’s Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
There’s a stigma attached, she said, and society tends to shame pregnant women into going off their psychiatric medication when the vast majority don’t do any harm to the baby. A mother with stable mental health is much better for the baby, Payne said, adding,
“As my mom used to say, when mom isn’t happy, nobody’s happy.”
Women shouldn’t be afraid to get a second opinion said Payne and Mary Giliberti, head of National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Women, I think, sometimes settle for less,” Giliberti said. “If you’re not getting better, ask for another provider.”
When the emcee of the event, Samantha Abrams of March on Washington Film Festival, took an informal poll of those in the room if they thought medical research focused too much on men, all hands went up.
The moderator, health journalist Fran Hawthorne, asked the panel on clinical trials what types of trials tend to underrepresent women.
“Pretty much all conditions,” said Monica Mallampalli of advocacy group Healthy Women, but she pointed specifically to cardiovascular conditions and trials for medical devices.
Mallampalli also pointed out, in response to a question about whether incentives could raise the participation of women in trials, that drug companies had offered incentives to women in the past. There is no single solution to underrepresentation, she said.
Zikria Syed, co-founder of VitalTrax, a patient recruitment app for clinical trials, said part of the problem is that there are so many trials that it is impossible for any one doctor to be aware of them all. He said he is trying to solve that problem with the app.
Debbie Knight, the Hadassah president in Boston, said she is shocked that so many women are still ignored or their pain and symptoms are attributed to hysteria. Her hope for the summit is that women not only become more informed advocates for themselves, but go back and educate their communities.
Randi Cohen Coblenz, an Arlington resident and member of Hadassah, agreed, adding that the personal testimonies of women finally being believed were “heart-wrenching.”
“For me, the important thing is to see what you can do,” she said. “There’s nobody’s life [healthcare] doesn’t affect. But it’s the individual commitment to doing something that helps us globally.”