Flipping the Script: Health Care Designed for Women

Magnifying glass focused on drawing of a pelvis bone

Women are not small men

For most of medical history, when it came to research and care, women were assumed to be basically smaller men. This assumption meant that new medicines and treatments were often tested only on men, but given to women as well. 

Only for the past few decades has medical research really started to include women, and health care has finally begun to treat women differently. 

What took so long? 

There are a lot of complex social and cultural reasons, of course. But another factor is that conducting research on men is a little bit easier. 

"Men don't have life stages and monthly cyclical changes like women," says Michelle Berlin, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Center for Women's Health and professor of OB-GYN. 

But if women are different enough that they can't be studied in the same way as men, isn't it likely that these differences might require different health care interventions and treatments? 

"Absolutely, yes," says Dr. Berlin. 

In fact, throughout her career she's been working to flip the script. "When looking at any disease or treatment, instead of assuming women are the same as men until proven otherwise, we have to assume women are different unless research proves they're the same," Dr. Berlin says. 

Women are different 

We're proud to say that at OHSU and beyond, this script flip has taken hold. Researchers are uncovering new ways that women are vastly different from men. Here are just a few: 

  • Heart health: The warning signs of cardiovascular disease are often different in women. 
  • Mental health: Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. 
  • Medication: Women respond differently than men to many medications, from sleeping pills to allergy drugs to antibiotics. 
  • Chronic pain: Women may feel pain more intensely than men, yet are often less likely to have their pain taken seriously. 

We have made a lot of progress in these and other areas where researchers and clinicians have included women in their studies over the past few decades.  

"But there's so much that we still don't know," says Dr. Berlin. 

For example, take Parkinson's disease. We don't know if the disease behaves differently in women, or if the best treatment for women might be different from the best treatment for men.  

We're on the precipice of new knowledge in this area. Parkinson's disease is one of many areas of women's health that researchers at OHSU and beyond are starting to investigate. 

What you can do 

 "Women are fifty-one percent of the population," Dr. Berlin says. "They make up the vast majority of caregivers and health care decision-makers. Their health matters to all of us." 

We aren't all doctors or scientists, but we can all help push for a better understanding of women's health. 

Next time your health care provider prescribes you a new medication or recommends a treatment, ask them if they would recommend the same to a man. If they would, dig deeper. Ask if there is evidence to support giving you the same recommendation. Has your health care provider taken your sex and gender into consideration? 

 So ask. And keep asking.