An analysis of more than 650 research papers found that only half broke down results by gender. Of those who do, women are disadvantaged in some way almost two-thirds of the time. Getty Images
Women are not little men. This may sound obvious, but this kind of thinking often affects health care, and male physiology is the default choice for research and treatment. From the earliest stages of animal testing and clinical trials, models have historically been based on male specimens. Questions about sex differences have rarely been investigated or documented, assuming that there are few important differences in the functioning of organs and biological systems other than reproduction.
That’s not true—and the difference matters. In some cases, the same condition may have different symptoms or causes. In other cases, the disorder is more common in women. Drugs and medical devices may also work differently. For example, many medications for rheumatoid arthritis are much less effective in women; the same goes for asthma inhalers. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, women report adverse events for approved drugs 52% more often than men, and serious adverse events, including death, are 36% more frequent than men. Furthermore, diseases that disproportionately affect women are systematically underreported, understudied, and underinvested in. In the United States, only 4% of healthcare research and development is devoted to women’s health issues.
All of this creates huge global health disparities. Although women generally live longer, they spend 25% of their lives in poor health. About 60% of women’s lost health occurs between the ages of 20 and 60, the age when they are most likely to work.
Finally, levels of care may be unequal. Men are three times more likely to receive cardiac resynchronization therapy for the treatment of arrhythmias. Awareness of this inequality is not a secret, but it has not yet become mainstream.
Health disparities disadvantage women and undermine their ability to live life to the fullest. It also comes with huge economic costs. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) estimate in a new report that closing the health gap between men and women could boost global GDP by at least $1 trillion per year by 2040 by increasing labor force participation and reducing unemployment. Dollar. hours, and higher productivity. Every dollar invested in these efforts generates $3 in economic growth.
This is the opportunity. To achieve this, society can act along three lines.
research and data
In many existing data sets, women’s specific needs are ignored or not considered at all. When MHI analyzed more than 650 research papers, it found that only half were broken down by gender. Of those who do, women are disadvantaged in some way almost two-thirds of the time. (For men, this number is 10%).
Erroneous or incomplete data can lead to underestimation of women’s health problems, affecting the care they receive and how society allocates resources for women’s health. Therefore, it is critical to enhance the collection, analysis and reporting of data on women. It’s impossible to close health disparities without asking the right questions (Do women suffer more chronic pain? If so, why? Why are women twice as likely to die after a heart attack?).
Health professionals want to do the best they can for all patients. But when it comes to everything from heart disease to pain management, women appear to be shortchanged, unable to get the same care as men and have worse outcomes. In the U.S., McKinsey & Company found that conditions that primarily affect women tend to have higher copay requirements. However unintentional, these practices can have a real impact. Disparities in care account for one-third of women’s health disparities globally.
Solutions will vary greatly, and very poor countries will not be able to adopt the same solutions as rich countries. But in all cases, improving services for women, for example by developing gender-appropriate screening and care guidelines, will almost certainly improve overall performance and health outcomes.
Despite improvements in representation in research and clinical trials, women’s health has historically not received the investment it deserves. In Canada and the UK, only 5.9% of grants between 2009 and 2020 focused on women-specific outcomes or women’s health. In the United States, diseases that disproportionately affect women, such as migraine, are underfunded relative to their disease burden (measured in disability-adjusted life years).
Furthermore, existing funding often ignores the fact that many conditions manifest differently in women and men, resulting in disparities in outcomes, with women generally faring worse.
Closing health disparities requires greater investment in understanding gender-based disparities and women’s specific circumstances to address women’s unmet needs.
Approximately 95% of women’s health burden results from diseases that affect both women and men. In a sense, addressing health disparities is not a women’s issue: it matters to everyone.
Lucy Perez is a senior partner in McKinsey & Company’s Boston office and co-lead of the McKinsey Health Institute’s health equity practice. Tracy Francis is a senior partner and chief marketing officer at McKinsey & Company.
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