In 2021, the independent researcher Arthur Mirin studied data demonstrating the allocation of funding to different diseases by US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He ascertained the extent of gender disparity in funding behaviour through the collected data and found that greater funds were allocated to diseases that affected men disproportionately than those that affected women disproportionately.
For instance, more than 60 per cent of victims of substance abuse were men and most funds were allocated to diseases that disproportionately affect men. On the other hand, anxiety disorders, migraines, headaches, endometriosis, and ME/CFS affect more women (over 60 per cent) than they affect men. The funding allocated to these diseases based on their burden remains meagre.
How lack of funding affects women’s health
The following charts demonstrate the burden of disease with the greater affected gender indicated through the colour blue for men and orange for women.
As is observed, the burden of disease is not proportionate with the funding allocated to the disease; the increased concentration of the considerably large orange circles on the left side of the chart is a cause of great concern.
Recognising how research on women’s health is insufficient and constantly underfunded, another study, funded by Women’s Health Access Matters (WHAM) and undertaken by RAND corporation researchers, analysed the potentially large return on investment that could be generated with a slight increase in funding women’s health research on coronary artery disease (CAD).
The findings demonstrate that ‘The return on investment is 9,500 percent for doubled investment in women’s health research, even with only 0.01 percent improvement in health outcomes.‘
The problem with male-centric healthcare
Historically, women were excluded from clinical trials and the conclusions drawn from research on men were generalised and applied to both men and women. Researchers justified this exclusion by stating that women’s bodies were too complex for medical trials owing to continually fluctuating hormones. It was not until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health in the US made women’s participation in clinical trials mandatory.
Owing to this, there is little knowledge regarding effects and pain resulting from diseases in women. Additonally, reproductive health research was not favoured. Due to this, a lot of funding was channeled to studying conditions that effected only males or both males and females.
A general lack of knowledge among male researchers regarding women’s bodies and conditions could be attributed to this. For instance, endometriosis affects one in 10 women, which makes the condition as common among women as diabetes in the general population.
The state of women’s health in India
A policy report published in 2016 attempted to better understand the health needs of women in India. Apart from women’s sexual and reproductive health, research focused on non-communicable diseases (NCD) and its impact on women remains meagre.
For instance, while the maternal mortality in India has come down from 5.7 per cent in 1990 to 2.8 per cent in 2015, at present, leading causes of death among women from high and low-income countries alike include ‘cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease, respiratory diseases and trauma.’ There is a general neglect towarda women’s health after their child-bearing years.
Further, the report states that there is ‘A depressing fact in the Indian healthcare system is the remarkable lack of any data that can provide any level of gender specific analysis of disease burden. In fact, the 2013 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report singled out India to point to the overall lack of data.’
How to improve the state of women’s healthcare
The Sustainable Developmental Goal (SDG) of establishing Universal Health Care (UHC) cannot be achieved without establishing gender equity. Knowledge production and dissemination through financing research and policy implementation in women’s health in order to enable them to lead better and more productive lives. This can be established if more NGOs, funding and charity organisations, and researchers involve themselves in enabling greater knowledge production regarding women’s health issues.
Women are instrumental in providing care in the familial and in public and professional capacities. However, care for their minds and bodies remains neglected. Women from marginalised communities and low-income households experience a greater burden owing to their intersecting underprivileged social identities.
This calls for an intersectional approach in analysing how conditions and diseases affect women. Competitive grants that incentivise researchers to pursue women’s health research, government support in terms of funding, and greater awareness of unique impacts of diseases on women’s health are crucial to ensure healthier lives for all women.