Think women have come a long way when it comes to the quality of their healthcare?
You might want to think again.
Instead, it seems that women have a long way to go to catch up with men when it comes to their health services.
A new study published in Nature Communications says women get diagnosed with diseases far later than men.
How much later?
For cancer, the researchers said women get diagnosed two and a half years later than men.
For diabetes, women are diagnosed four and a half years later than men.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Copenhagen. They looked at the health data for almost 7 million men and women in the Danish healthcare system over a 21-year period.
They discovered that women were diagnosed later than men in more than 700 diseases. One of the few exceptions? Osteoporosis.
“The message is that the national strategies that are established need to take a difference into account. We can no longer use the ‘one size fits all’ model,” said Søren Brunak, PhD, a professor at the University of Copenhagen, a researcher at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, and the study’s lead author.
Brunak did note that his team didn’t find the cause of the disparities.
“The study does not provide a comprehensive explanation for why we see these differences, and how the reasons in particular divide up between germ-line genetics, environmental exposures, and modifiable lifestyle,” he told Healthline. “So we are looking into that now.”
The researchers’ next step is a collaboration with another team in Finland.
Even though the Danish have a single-payer health plan, are there takeaways from this study for women’s healthcare in the United States?
We posed that question to Nicole Woitowich, PhD, associate director for the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“This study is unique in that it captures health information from the entire Danish population. Due to privatized healthcare in the United States, it is nearly impossible to conduct a study like this on the same scale,” she told Healthline.
“That being said, I anticipate that we would also find that women experience a delay-to-diagnosis in many clinical areas and that this gap would likely extend further for women of color,” she added.
Woitowich said we already know there are gender disparities in healthcare in this country.
“Historically, it was assumed that there were no differences between men and women outside of the reproductive tract, when in fact, that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” she said.
“Women and men experience many diseases and disorders differently. Both sex and gender can have a significant impact on our health and well-being,” she explained. “This is still an issue that is often overlooked, even within medical education and training.”
Woitowich says her organization along with others continue trying to raise awareness about gender bias and the influences of sex and gender in healthcare.
She said significant work is being done on the research front starting at the basic levels.
“The majority of biomedical research is conducted in male cells and animals. By studying only one sex, we limit the ability to discover new therapies and treatments for both men and women,” she said. “We need to study the influences of sex at all levels, from the earliest stages at the lab bench through to the patient bedside.”
Another organization, the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), began nearly three decades ago battling to get women involved in clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health.
Back then, women were excluded.
Amy Miller, PhD, president and chief executive officer of SWHR, told Healthline the group’s advocacy has finally paid off.
“Some progress is being made. I’m impatient at the rate of change,” she said. “But, yes, I’m absolutely encouraged.”
Still, there are challenges.
“The body of research in cardiology on sex differences is robust and well-known to clinicians and practitioners,” she said. “But when women have heart attacks and go to the ER, they’re often dismissed rather than receiving a full cardiovascular work up.”
“Why is that? I think it goes to stigma, and under appreciating women’s health or dismissing women’s health,” she added. “So when we ask why are there these disparities, I think it’s because we’ve ignored women’s health for so long.”