Wednesday, August 24, 2005

When Treating Women like Men Creates Inequality

Both ABC News and Newsweek reported on a story regarding women and lung cancer this past week. The rate of lung cancer among women is growing more than seven times faster than in men and the fastest growing group is non-smoking women. No one understands the reason behind this phenomenon but fledgling hypotheses point to hormones, particularly estrogen. Though lung cancer kills more women each year than breast, ovarian and uterine cancer combined, lung cancer has not been traditionally identified as a women’s health issue. In fact, there may be many diseases that affect women differently than men. Some we know about, such as heart disease, and others are yet undiscovered. As “evidence-based medicine” becomes the paradigm of 21st century health care, we need to ask very pointed questions about the origins and demographics of that evidence. Are women being treated on the basis of how men have responded in clinical trials? Some have hailed evidence-based medicine as a force of justice – equalizing treatment for everyone. But treating everyone by the same guidelines is not just if those guidelines are tailored to one group and exclude another. Much of the evidence used by physicians to guide current prescription and treatment practices is based on the physiological responses of white men.

One force to change the status quo can be found at the National Institutes of Health. NIH’s
Office of Research on Women’s Health was formed in 1990 to encourage the inclusion of women in clinical research and develop policies requiring the inclusion of women in NIH funded research.

[thanks Kristen Nelson!]

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