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Women overlooked in medical research, study suggests

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Data revealing that healthcare treatments are derived largely from studies on male subjects indicates that women's health may be suffering as a consequence. 

A report released on Monday by identifies a discrepancy between gender representation in the research stages of developing treatments and the clinical stages, where sick women far outnumber those that participate in crucial studies. Further, in studies that do have female test subjects, information is rarely reported in male and female groupings - rather, the data is presented as overall figures that include both sexes, without differentiating the findings. 

Produced by researchers from the Connors Center for Women's Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and the Jacobs Institute of Women's Health at George Washington University in Washington, the report goes on the criticize research oversights in the field of female-specific healthcare. Indeed, the report may be new, but the concerns are not: a U.S. Public Health Service study from 1985 reaped similar findings, citing that a "lack of research focus on women's health concerns has compromised the quality of health information available to women as well as the health care they receive."

Incidentally, enhanced reporting on differences between female and male test subjects does not incur further costs, a factor that should be encouraging for researchers. "For studies that already include women and female animals, reporting data by sex is critically important and that's not routinely done," said Paula Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center, in a telephone interview with Bloomberg News. "We're not getting the value for our added research dollars."

As far as numbers go, less than a third of cardiovascular clinical trial participants are female, despite cardiovascular diseases being the primary cause of death for women in the U.S. Similarly, less than 45 percent of behavioral studies with animal test subjects use female animals, despite a high incidence of mental illness - and subsequently physical illness - in women. Lung cancer, which progresses differently in men and women, is rarely broken down into female-specific findings, even though the disease kills more women annually than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined. 

Despite several medical practitioners disregarding the differences in treatment paths for male and female patients, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aims to ensure women are treating their illnesses in a safe and effective way - which may mean recommending different dosage amounts and frequency for certain medications. For example, sleeping medications typically take longer to leave the female body, with the FDA ruling that women should take smaller doses to account for the lag.

The FDA also hopes to preside over the analysis of data in the lab stages of research, with spokesperson Tara Goodin advising Bloomberg in an email that the federal body is "working on an action plan that would evaluate how to enhance the inclusion and analysis of subgroups in medical product applications as well as how that information is or should be communicated to patients and health-care professionals."

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