These days, it seems women's health and wellness has taken center stage, from medical care to the media. However, women's health trends and health care needs haven't always been in the spotlight. In fact, it's only been in the past 100 years that doctors and researchers have recognized the need to focus on the specific health requirements of approximately half the population.
The rise of the women's health movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the larger women's rights movement. As women fought for equal rights, equal pay, and access to higher education, they also fought for better health care. Women began demanding better services to meet their needs throughout their life spans, from childhood and adolescence through prenatal and postpartum care all the way to after menopause.
A Shift in Perspective
Historically, medical care has been dominated by men. After all, it wasn't until 1849 that Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States after graduating from New York's Geneva Medical College. She went on to found the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and opened the Women's Medical College in 1868 to train more female doctors.
The lack of female representation in the medical field meant that doctors treated men and women the same, with a one-size-fits-all approach. They assumed that health and disease followed the same track in both sexes, and the majority of scientific research and clinical trials included only male participants. A 1993 report from the General Accounting Office found that only 13.5 percent of research funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were designated for women's health and women were excluded from clinical trials. Thus, doctors and researchers modeled the prevention, management, and treatment of disease on what happens in the male body.
While men and women are similar, there are significant physiological and behavioral differences between the sexes that affect overall health. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers began to realize that there were major gaps in understanding how disease and illness affect women and women's health trends, and how hormonal differences may affect women's disease progression and response to drug treatments.
For example, in the mid-1980s, the medical community began to realize that women experience heart disease differently from men. Unlike the stereotypical image of a man clutching his chest during a heart attack, warning signs in women are different and include nausea or vomiting, jaw pain, and back pain, according to the American Heart Association.
In 1990, the NIH established the Office of Research on Women's Health to support greater research on women's health trends and concerns. In 1992, the NIH initiated the Women's Health Initiative, a $625 million, 14-year randomized control trial to study the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis in women. In 1993, the FDA developed a new gender guideline and began allowing women to participate in early-stage clinical trials.
Focus on Women's Specific Needs
Along with the recognition that health and disease manifest differently in men and women came a greater understanding that women of different races have diverse health needs and concerns. The realization that enormous health disparities exist for minority women gave rise to specific organizations and initiatives such as the Black Women's Health Imperative, the National Latina Health Organization, the National Asian Women's Health Organization, and the Native American Women's Health Education and Resource Center.
Recognizing and addressing gender-, sex-, and ethnic-based differences in health care is an important step in understanding gaps in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases in women. The rise of women's health centers and clinics further emphasizes the interest in moving toward a new model of women's health. Ultimately, it can serve to improve health care for all, leading to better treatment and potentially saving lives.