By Jana Druxman
Are men’s and women’s heart attack symptoms identical? Should doctors prescribe pain killers for men’s pain while ordering sedatives for women’s pain? If your insurance company covers medical expenses for men’s sexual performance enhancement, why doesn’t it also cover treatment for women’s sexual health needs? Are women’s healthcare needs limited to “bikini medicine,” including only their breasts and reproductive organs?
These were some of the issues of discrimination, awareness and inequity that were addressed when Hadassah’s Summit of the Coalition for Women’s Health Equity convened on May 17in Washington, DC. I was privileged to be among about 175 attendees who heard the charges from leaders of a variety of women’s health organizations. Complacency can only lead to further weakening of vital healthcare programs which will have negative effects on families physically, socially and economically.
Hadassah’s National President, Ellen Hershkin, introduced the session by noting that there are currently 23 organizations involved in the coalition. This group will “address inequities in the quality of care, funding and support and gaps in women’s health awareness.”
The powerhouse organizations on the planning committee included: the American Heart Association, Black Women’s Health Imperative, Hadassah, Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, Women Against Alzheimer’s, and WomenHeart. Member organizations combine their strengths to promote equity and social justice for women in areas including family planning services and healthcare policies. We were urged to educate, advocate, and legislate for change. The overarching focus was eliminating gender discrimination in healthcare.
The Representative Dr. Raul Ruiz (CA) was one of three members of congress to address the group, and stated uncompromisingly that, “health is a human right.”
Malia Litman’s personal testimony was truly a conference highlight. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease which effects women in disproportionate numbers compared with men. Malia’s multiple sclerosis symptoms included severely impaired mobility and speech. After stem-cell infusion treatment at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem she regained her ability to walk and to speak. Similar stem-cell treatments developed by Hadassah researchers are proving to be effective for patients with ALS diagnoses, as well.
Keynote speaker, Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, informed the summit attendees that our health is impacted by environmental factors including tobacco, inactivity and obesity. Additionally, our economy and politics all effect our health. Disparities must be fixed so that income level is not what determines our health status, as is currently true in our country. Dr. Blumenthal described using imaging technology from the Department of Defense in service of mammography. She bemoaned the fact that funding for medical research in the US is decreasing, unlike in China and some other countries. In this country there is a 15 year gap between research and treatment. She reminded us that it is now mandated that medical research have gender-based information at all levels.
Additionally, she shared that “global health is America’s health,” in that infectious diseases kill more people than wars. Concerning gender differences, she noted that alcoholism is affecting women earlier than men, and that women’s opioid abuse has increased more than men’s. Dr. Blumenthal was adamant that the proposed health coverage bill will take a “machete to Medicaid,” disproportionately affecting women, and especially those who are older.
Panelists strongly encouraged attendees to share their healthcare stories and photographs with each other and with legislators on the local, state and national levels. Healthier futures for women depend on increasing the numbers of women leaders in business and government to bring a more balanced perspective. In addition, it is imperative that women vote in order to pass essential healthcare legislation. To assure our future health, girls must be encouraged to explore career paths in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields.
The message from all of the presenters was emphatic. “Gender disparities in medicine — among research subjects, and in healthcare access and delivery-put women at risk for misdiagnoses, ineffective treatments and compromised care.”