Opinion: Women's health is taking centre stage — but we're not yet ready to take a bow

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED HERE ON APRIL 10, 2021, BY THE CALGARY HERALD

When Shauna, a Red Deer mother, walked into an emergency department with stomach pain, she was promptly sent home, only to return two weeks later by ambulance in full cardiac arrest. That day, she joined a club comprised of women with heart conditions whose stories are ripe with misdiagnoses, minimized symptoms, and poorly targeted treatments.

This is a club no one wants to join, but its membership increases by at least 300 women each year in Alberta.

A woman can make all the right decisions about her health and still be betrayed at her doctor’s office or in the emergency department. Gender bias in health exists — not out of malice but a combination of pervasive old habits by some in the medical community and an historic lack of knowledge, generally, about women’s health. The result is female patients continue to be misdiagnosed, neglected, dismissed as complainers, accused of being overanxious, mislabelled as depressed or told their symptoms are all in their heads.

The latter happened to my mother only two years ago, after a 15-year-old hip implant began to leach cobalt into her bloodstream — causing pain, heart irregularities, breathing difficulties, severe anxiety and cognitive issues. As she described multiple symptoms to her doctor that were the result of her internal organs coping with metal poisoning, his answer was to point to his head and say, “I think it’s all up here.”

From anxiety, depression and dementia to osteoporosis, autoimmune conditions, stroke, migraines, thyroid diseases, urinary tract infections, bladder control issues and breast cancer, all of these strike more women than men. And yet, when it comes to the health of half of the population, there’s another glass ceiling that prevents physicians and clinicians (of all genders) from accepting that women’s bodies respond differently than men’s to a myriad of illnesses, diseases and medications.

This is consequential: Alberta is home to 2.1 million women and girls. That means more than 49 per cent of the province’s population is relying on a health-care system rife with inequities.

Thank goodness we have physicians who are demonstrating commitment and practice to change the narrative, a women’s hospital that pushes for excellence in specialized clinical care and a research institute that is working alongside it to advance knowledge.

And as of International Women’s Day, we can look to the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation — a new health-care charity launched by the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation in Edmonton — to increase fundraising and support in women’s health research. This organization advocated for and helped build the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, and through strong donor support distributed more than $30 million to advance women’s health since 2008, as well as an additional $25 million to support research projects during that same time.

There are compelling reasons for the launch of the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation’s — a province-wide entity placing a new lens of clarity on the Alberta experience. If clinical care in doctors’ offices and at bedsides in hospitals can be considered the engine of health care, the track guiding it forward is research.

And while research in women’s health is underfunded, so too are women researchers themselves.

An independent research cohort retrospectively reviewed 55,700 grant and 4,087 personnel award applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research over 15 years. It found that compared with men, women were significantly less likely to be awarded grants and New Investigator personnel awards. Additionally, they identified male scientists had more success in specific research content areas including cancer; circulatory and respiratory health; health services and policy research; and musculoskeletal health and arthritis.

If we think the days of women researchers always playing second fiddle are behind us, we need to think again. The resulting loss of opportunity leads to a lack of variety in perspectives, which perpetuates misdiagnosis and a lack of targeted treatment for our grandmothers, mothers and ourselves. Even worse, the situation inadvertently increases membership to the “Club of Close Calls.”

Is there any more important reason to demonstrate the need for the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation? Perhaps one is to serve as a conduit to amplify quantitative and qualitative findings to all stakeholders. What is the state of women’s health in Alberta? In their own words, what would women tell us — all of us — about the experiences they have each day? And what of the health-care experiences of BIPOC women in our province? What would these voices say about how they experience care and treatment in doctors’ offices, emergency departments and in clinical care settings in hospitals throughout our province?

The Alberta Women’s Health Foundation aims to answer these questions. Yes, women’s health care has made some impressive gains. But we’re nowhere close to taking a bow. Not yet.

Sharlene Rutherford is president and CEO of the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation, which recently launched the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation.