The Healthcare Gender Bias: Do Men Get Better Treatment?

How does gender impact healthcare?

In this article, we prompt a call to action to address gender bias in healthcare.

Biological differences between men and women not only increase the chance of women developing certain diseases but also how they experience them; this means women often have different symptoms to men, which can delay diagnosis and treatment.

Even with the same symptoms, medical staff may treat women differently; e.g., following an operation, women are often given sedatives rather than strong pain killers, suggesting they believe women are suffering from anxiety rather than pain.

Access to healthcare may also play a role and can be influenced by cultural, social and economic factors. Usually, women take on the caregiver role within the family; prioritising others and neglecting their health. 

Heart disease is a prime example

Heart disease is one case where the gender gap is recognised more widely. Women are more likely to die from a heart attack than men, with heart attacks claiming the lives of 3.3 million women globally every year. Women often experience unusual symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain, rather than the chest pain seen in men. This, together with the misconception that heart disease is a male problem, means women with heart disease often remain under-diagnosed and under-treated.


Why does this gender gap exist?

Trial design lacks balance! Preclinical trials often avoid the use of female animals, historically seeing hormones as a “female problem”. Likewise, clinical trials generally include a higher proportion of men and often fail to analyse for any difference between sexes, making it difficult to be sure that the findings are equally relevant for women.

For example, aspirin therapy was found to significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, based on studies almost exclusively in men; however, in a later trial of approximately 40,000 women, aspirin did not have any significant effect.

Also, because it is assumed that treatments will work the same way in women as in men, women often have a greater risk of developing side effects, possibly due to differences in hormones, the immune system, or the way drugs are transported or metabolised within the body.



What can we do about it?

Together with our industry partners, we should campaign to increase awareness and call to action by:

Recognising the need for treating men and women equally in healthcare

– Understanding the consequences of not addressing the gender gap

– Taking steps to equalise gender representation at all stages of drug development

– Demonstrating leadership to drive change throughout the pharmaceutical industry



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