Leaving women behind in health care

Myriam Marquez

October 19, 1992|By Myriam Marquez

HEART disease is a health problem that attacks men for the most part. At least, that's what we had been led to believe -- until recently.

In fact, younger men are more prone to heart attacks and strokes than women before the age of 60. After that, though, it's an equal opportunity disease. It strikes as many women as it does men.

Yet most research conducted on heart disease has concentrated on men. So has research on a host of other ills. Women make up two-thirds of the elderly population; yet when the National Institutes of Health launched its study of the elderly, no women were included in the first 20 years of research.

I would hate to think this neglect has been caused by sexism within the medical profession. Let's be kind and say it's simply indifference -- and not sexism -- that has kept women's health issues on the back burner.

In "Megatrends for Women," authors Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt note that the research gap has been a historical fact because women are poorly represented in policy-making positions in the government and in the medical profession.

That, thankfully, is starting to change.

We now have a woman, Antonia Novello, serving as U.S. surgeon general under President Bush. And Dr. Bernadine Healy now directs the NIH and has vowed to do more research on diseases that affect primarily women, such as breast and uterine cancer and osteoporosis.

Still, the president hasn't moved beyond using female figureheads -- however well-intentioned they may be -- to make a difference for women's health. For instance, the Bush administration hasn't embraced putting into law the need to include women in all clinical trials.

As it stands, women are using many medicines that have been tested only on men. No one seems to know know whether female hormones can change the outcome of how these medicines work.

And, of course, the politicization of abortion hasn't helped. Mr. Bush's anti-abortion stand has hindered efforts to study cures for diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease or diabetes, with the use of aborted fetal tissue. But more than that, President Bush's recent veto on fetal tissue legislation resulted in stalled research for breast cancer, as well. That's because the legislation he vetoed included millions of dollars for other research that had nothing to do with fetal tissue.

To put the blame on Mr. Bush alone for having a huge research gap is unfair, however. Congress could just as well have separated the issue of using fetal tissue from the other research funded in that bill. But in an election year, no party comes out clean.

Besides, the male-dominated medical profession needs to do more to educate itself about its negligence -- not only in research but in an almost passive treatment of many diseases affecting women.

The treatment of heart disease is a good example. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of 2,231 men and women hospitalized with severe heart attacks that showed men were given much more aggressive medical treatment than women. Men were twice as likely to have a coronary angiography -- a test that determines the extent of blockage of the coronary arteries. And men also were twice as likely to undergo coronary ** bypass surgery.

Fortunately, women are starting to speak up about the inequities. Last Thursday was National Women's Health Care Day. There were forums held across the country to discuss the politics of women's health and the obstacles that remain.

Whether Mr. Bush remains president or Democrat Bill Clinton gets the job, the issue of women's health must be addressed without regard to party label. What women want to see is their health treated as seriously as men's. There's nothing political in that desire for fairness.

Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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