Posted: May 12, 2014
Every second Sunday in May, we honor our mothers for all they do. Not by coincidence, Mother's Day is also the annual start of National Women's Health Week: seven days to reflect on where we have been and where we're going to ensure good health for the 161 million women in the United States.
In 2014, women's health is a mainstream issue that affects all of us, our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters alike. It's head to toe. It goes beyond "bikini medicine" that centers on reproductive health, or the areas most commonly covered by a bikini.
The Women's Health Research in Review shows that women's health has improved dramatically in the past few decades. We now routinely include women in clinical trials, just like men, so we can gather evidence to personalize treatment. And we have made strides for women, with new treatments and better understanding of how women's bodies work.
There is still opportunity for improvement, though: We need to understand the role of sex in fundamental biology. In 2014, we still do not see routine sex-specific experimental design and analyses in research with cells and animals. This means that we are missing out on knowledge that will benefit women and men, and girls and boys. We need experiments that compare and contrast female and male animals. We need studies that do the same with female and male cells.
When scientists take a unisex approach to basic research, we learn about an "average" cell, animal, or person — not a woman, specifically, or a man. This creates gaps in understanding that can affect health care. For example, we know women are more prone to the adverse effects of medications. And why is that the case? We don't yet know — but it is just one of many questions worth exploring further.
When I see a patient in the NIH Clinical Center hospital, I know that she — or he — has an expectation that the care I give is the most appropriate for a female or a male body. As a clinician, I am only able to do that to the extent that biomedical research has provided the tools and the knowledge.
As we begin our 2014 celebration of women's health, we reflect on progress, but we look ahead to huge and important opportunities to learn more through research that includes female subjects, analyzes data for males and females, and publishes sex-specific results.
As a scientist, and as a woman, I know one thing for sure. "We don't know" is not good enough for moms on their special day, or any American, any day.